The City of the Dead
U.K. / 1960
Directed by
John Llewellyn Moxey 
Starring
Venetia Stevenson
Christopher Lee
Dennis Lotis
B&W / 78 Minutes / Not Rated

Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
VCI Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
7
    9   10 = Highest Rating  
Better known by the release title Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a taut, compact little thriller about a "modern day" cult of murderous devil worshippers in New England. Shot before Psycho, both this and Hitchcock's film share a similar structure the story's heroine is killed halfway through the picture, her disappearance subsequently investigated by a concerned relative and boyfriend. Director John Moxey (The Night Stalker) really piles on the atmosphere here with hidden tunnels, chanting, black-robed figures and banks of fog thick enough to cut with a ritual dagger. Adding to the luster, cult film legend Christopher Lee appears in a crucial supporting role.
    The movie opens in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts in 1692. A woman, Elisabeth Selwyn (a terrific Patricia Jessel), is dragged from her house and condemned as a witch by a mob of townspeople. As they burn her at the stake she proclaims her allegiance to Lucifer and places a curse on the village. This opening sequence is quite well done and almost has the feel of an old Universal horror of the '30s by way of TV's Twilight Zone.
    Flash forward 268 years to a history lecture on the very incident being given by New England college professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) to a small group of students. The excitable egghead seems a bit too caught up in his dissertation. One student shares the professor's fascination with the occult: pretty Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), younger sister to Driscoll's colleague, science professor Dick Barlow (Dennis Lotis). When Nan inquires about doing some research for her term paper, Driscoll recommends a trip to Whitewood, Mass. site of the Selwyn execution and subsequent paranormal happenings. Despite the protests of brother Dick, Nan packs up her notepads and drives to Whitewood for a week of field study. Here she encounters some very odd people, including a mysterious hitchhiker, a blind, elderly clergyman and the creepy Mrs. Newless (Jessel again), proprietor of the town's only hotel, The Raven Inn. In her room Nan believes she can hear a strange chanting coming from beneath the floor.
    Poor Nan ends up getting murdered, stabbed to death as a ritual sacrifice to Satan. (That we'd come to like her and care about what happens to the character slow on the uptake as she is certainly adds impact to the story.) With his sister missing for weeks and the police at a loss, Richard questions the jumpy Driscoll but only gets the run-around. He and Nan's boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) head for Whitewood to get answers for themselves. They're aided by Patricia (Betta St. John), granddaughter of the blind Rev. Russell and herself a newcomer to the village. Naturally, when the rituals of the Dark One call for another sacrifice it is Patricia who's chosen by the coven to die.
    Very much unlike Psycho, which was about an insane but quite mortal killer, City's tale is rooted firmly in the supernatural. This isn't just some freaked-out cult of devil worshippers hanging out in this backwater New England burg, by no means. They're ghostlike Undead who've sustained themselves over the centuries by drinking the blood of human sacrifice victims. Mrs. Newless is Elisabeth Selwyn, the infamous Witch of Whitewood. Moxey's direction and Desmond Dickinson's excellent black and white cinematography help us buy this mumbo jumbo far more readily than the script does. The flick positively drips atmosphere. (Unlike the ridiculous Slime People, City proves you can make a movie using lots and lots of fog to create an eerie ambiance and still be able to see the actors.) The cast members complement the film's effective production design. They're all good, with everyone but Lotis mastering believable Mid-Atlantic American accents. Jessel's the real standout, though, in her dual role as the cruel and evil Selwyn/Newless. Lee is also fun to watch. With his gigantic, imposing forehead, delivering his lines in rapid-fire style, he asserts a patented checklist of sinister expressions that radiate menace.
    City of the Dead isn't a particularly well-known horror film. Perhaps VCI's release of the DVD will spur greater interest. It certainly deserves a wider audience we consider it a minor classic of the genre. It's a stroll in the fog well worth taking.

After a false start with its initial pressing the anamorphic transfer would get "stuck" in 16x9 mode, producing a squeezed effect on standard television monitors VCI has issued a topnotch release of City of the Dead, without a doubt the definitive home video version of the film. (Which, by the way, is also floating around out there in numerous forms under the "Horror Hotel" moniker.) Uncut, with the original titles, it's never looked better. The transfer does justice to Dickinson's moody cinematography. Sound quality isn't as pristine; a few snaps and crackles are occasionally evident but nothing ever truly distracting. Dialog is quite clear.
    The disc comes with an overload of extras, a lot more than we expected for a reputedly "semi-forgotten" film. These consist chiefly of audio commentaries and on-camera interviews. Both Lee and director Moxey contribute separate film-length commentaries; Lee and Moxey, as well as costar Venetia Stevenson, also appear in separate interview segments. Christopher Lee's video interview, filmed in September 2001, lasts over 40 minutes. He doesn't say anything specific about City but does span a wide range of movie lore, especially where it concerns his career and the more famous directors he's worked with. (Much of which Lee's rehashed before in the supplements to other DVDs, including bits on black magic and devil worship. He also gets some plugs in for Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Episode II, while taking some deserved jabs at the British entertainment press.) Moxey whose segment runs about 25 minutes provides a quick outline of his directorial career but stays mainly focused on the subject at hand. In the short Stevenson interview the long-retired actress speaks from her home in Atlanta about her experiences making the film.
    As mentioned the disc features two separate audio commentaries, one each by Lee and Moxey. This may seem like overkill... Wouldn't it have made more sense to have both men participate in a single recording session? No, not if one wanted to actually hear what the director had to say. The notoriously expansive Lee, with his consummate ability to ramble on practically forever (not to mention a very long career's worth of anecdotal stories to rely on), would have doubtless kept Moxey on the sidelines. At least this way Moxey gets his two cents in.
    Rounding out the disc is the U.S. theatrical trailer, a set of onscreen text biographies of the principals, and a movie stills/production photo montage set to bits of the score. All the menu screens are fully animated. It's a nice touch, but in this case they take too long to play. Also of note: The packaging's insert sleeve is reversable, featuring alternative cover art. Neat! 1/21/02
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