The City of the Dead
D  V  D    R  E  V  I  E  W    B  Y    G  A  R  Y    J  O  H  N  S  O  N

 
Horror film aficionados have long known about an underrated, little-recognized gem from the early '60s called Horror Hotel. For many years, this movie was only available in America in generally poor-quality video transfers, second- and third-generation dupes from worn theatrical prints. However, in 1995 Elite Entertainment discovered a decent print and released the movie on laserdisc (which they followed in 1998 with a DVD release).

Now, VCI Entertainment ups the ante further. VCI has uncovered a print in excellent condition of the British release version of Horror Hotel, titled The City of the Dead, and prepared a superb DVD package filled with extras. The disc contains interviews with director John Moxey and stars Christopher Lee and Venetia Stevenson (daughter of director Robert Stevenson of Mary Poppins fame); audio commentaries by Christopher Lee and John Moxey; a photo gallery; and other extras.

This British release version is over two minutes longer than the American version. While preparing the movie for its original theatrical release in 1960, the American distributor, Trans-Lux, decided to make several edits. Most noticeably, they removed a sizable portion from the movie's opening sequence in which a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn is burned at the stake. Trans-Lux inexplicably deleted the section of this scene where the witch turns on her audience, offers her services to Lucifer for eternity, and places a curse on the town. VCI's release restores this crucial section of dialogue that lays the groundwork for the story that follows.

The City of the Dead introduces us to Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), a student of occult studies at an American university. She is eager to research a small New England town and experience firsthand the atmosphere where witchcraft may once have flourished. Her professor (Christopher Lee) knows about a town named Whitewood and recommends it to Nan. So against the wishes of her protective brother, Richard (Denis Lotis), and her boyfriend, Bill (Tom Naylor), Nan sets out to spend several days in Whitewood. After her brother and boyfriend haven't heard from her for several days, they become suspicious. They notify the police, but the police find nothing. Her brother decides to investigate on his own. He discovers a dark and mysterious old town. He asks about Nan, but no one can provide much help. The hotel proprietor, Mrs. Newless (who looks remarkably like the witch who was executed in the movie's opening scene), insists Nan left town. Richard continues to search for clues of her whereabouts, and that evening, he finds much more than he bargained for as a mystery unfolds that involves blood sacrifices and hooded monks who wander like zombies through a fog-shrouded graveyard.
 

Stills from
The City of the Dead


[click photos for larger versions]

This story has several striking similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. In both cases, a heroine drives to an isolated town, well off the main road, and stays at a hotel. After she disappears, police investigate but make little progress. So a sibling and a lover continue the investigation--and are nearly killed for their efforts. In addition, in scenes very near the end of each movie, the hero sees someone sitting in a chair and tries to talk to them. He turns the chair and discovers a corpse. The heroine screams. This last scene is so similar to Psycho that it seems absurd to think there is no connection between the two movies. But as director Moxey and star Stevenson point out during the supplementary interviews on VCI Entertainment's disc, The City of the Dead was released BEFORE Psycho. (So is it possible the reverse is true? Was Psycho affected by The City of the Dead?)

Due to its low budget, The City of the Dead was completely filmed on a sound stage. No scenes were filmed outside. However, instead of becoming a liability, this limitation actually works in the film's favor, giving it a strong sense of claustrophobia, which makes the horror all the more palpable. The confined sense of place also makes the movie resemble a made-for-TV production (as if it's a lost episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone); however, the cinematography is much superior to the television shows of this era. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (whose impressive credits include Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Anthony Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest) makes good use of objects in the foreground to help give a sense of depth to the set-bound locations. In addition, Moxey and Dickinson make effective use of fog to create a pervading "ambiance" (Moxey's word from an interview included on the DVD). While the fog in many horror films tends to hug the ground, Moxey and his technicians worked to create fog that also hangs in the air. As a result, the movie's plentiful night-time sequences--such as those set in a magnificently eerie graveyard--have a convincing sense of place despite the obvious budgetary limitations.

One of the movie's greatest virtues is its sense of a secluded other-worldly environment of near-Lovecraftian implications. Nan arrives in Whitewood only with the help of a man named Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) who hitches a ride and shows her the necessary turns. We immediately recognize the danger posed by the hitchhiker, for we have seen him before. He was present in the movie's first scene, a flashback to 1692 when Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake. In this scene, he denied having consorted with the witch; however, as she casts her curse on the town, we hear him add some choice words of his own under his breath, implicating him as her accomplice. In the present day setting of Whitewood, the hitchhiker is a dead ringer for the man who consorted with the witch, and the woman who runs the hotel is a dead ringer for Elizabeth Selwyn. Is it the power of their genes that are still influencing the local population--or are the witch and her accomplice alive again and spreading their evil ways?
 

Poster and DVD cover artwork for
The City of the Dead

[click photos for larger versions]

Because the movie gives us all of this information in the early scenes, we immediately suspect the danger that waits for Nan. The movie still has some shocks in store for us along the way, but the script lets us in on the danger and this gives the movie a pervading sense of doom, which ratchets up the suspense level. The town consists of a handful of wooden buildings gathered close around a single street, with a cemetery at the heart of the town. Because we never see Whitewood during the day--only at night--we never get a clear view of the surroundings. All we know are the claustrophobic confines of the building faces. The local bookstore offers a small bit of warmth, and the bookstore owner (Betta St. John) is genuinely helpful and considerate, but even the local church (which still exists despite the complete lack of a congregation) has become an abyss of darkness. The lone priest (Norman Macowan) who guards the grounds is now blind, but he vigilantly defends the church--as he has learned to do in a town that has no use for him or his religion.

The City of the Dead is not a complicated movie. There is no psychological dimension to the developing horror. Instead, we get a story that is simply about light vs. dark. We don't know why Elizabeth Selwyn became attracted to witchcraft. We don't know the nature of her relationship with Jethrow Keane. We don't know why the townsfolk of Whitewood have become attracted to the dark forces. We don't know why Nan is attracted to occult studies. Ultimately, the movie offers a simplistic dichotomy of good/normal society (as represented by Nan, her brother, her boyfriend, and the bookstore owner) vs. the evil outsiders (as represented by the devil-worshipping inhabitants of Whitewood and the duplicitous professor who knowingly lures Nan into a trap). Without a psychological dimension (as in The Wicker Man, for example), The City of the Dead becomes a somewhat minor movie (and thus its relative level of obscurity). But even if the goals of director Moxey and screenwriters Milton Subotsky and George Baxt were not particularly ambitious, the resulting movie is still a marvelously effective thriller that is guaranteed to place you on the edge of your seat.

Christopher Lee does not have a big role, but his presence is felt throughout The City of the Dead. Most of the burden for carrying the movie falls first on Venetia Stevenson and then on Denis Lotis as her brother and Tom Naylor as her boyfriend. But the movie's most dominating presence is Patricia Jessel as the witch. She has a commanding, almost-masculine presence that is set in opposition to Stevenson's inquisitive-but-vulnerable nature.

VCI Entertainment's DVD presentation of The City of the Dead is excellent. The video transfer is sharp and relatively free of scratches and other blemishes. My only misgiving is the audio commentary by Christopher Lee. Faced with watching a movie he apparently had not seen in many years, Mr. Lee spends much of the time simply trying to recollect what's happening. "Oh, this is the scene where " In the process, he tells us what we already know and rarely provides any insights. However, the disc also contains a 45 minute interview with Lee, and the interview is much superior to the commentary. It forced him to respond to specific questions -- and therefore he provided several intriguing anecdotes. (Moxey's audio commentary track only contains sparse comments. It's not much of an improvement on Lee's.)

If you're only familiar with this movie under the title Horror Hotel, it's time to update your collection with this excellent new version from VCI. And if you haven't yet seen this movie in any form, you're in for a treat. The City of the Dead isn't one of the great horror films, but it's a minor masterpiece of style and atmosphere with several genuinely shocking scenes.

 


The City of the Dead is now available on DVD from VCI Entertainment in a widescreen transfer (1.66:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes over two minutes of footage not found in the American Horror Hotel version; feature-length commentaries by Christopher Lee and John Moxey; interviews with directory John Moxey and stars Christopher Lee and Venetia Stevenson; a theatrical trailer; a photo gallery; and biographies on the principal players. Suggested retail price : $24.99. The City of the Dead is also available in widescreen format on VHS. Suggested retail price for VHS: $14.90. For more information, check out VCI Entertainment Web site.
 


Photos courtesy of VCI Entertainment.