Cinema Sunday: The City of The Dead (A.K.A. Horror Hotel – 1960)
Title: The City of The Dead (U.S. Title- Horror Hotel)
Distributor: British Lion
Writer: George Baxt (screenplay), Milton Subotsky (story)
Director: John Moxey
Producers: Seymour S. Dorner, Milton Subotsky, Max Rosenberg, Donald Taylor
Starring: Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Venetia Stevenson, Betta St. John, Patricia Jessel
Released: Sept. 1960 (U.K.)
It has been a couple of months since I spotlighted a film starring the late, great Christopher Lee. His contributions to the industry are nothing short of legendary, and rightly so. This week I’m going to showcase a lesser-known film that stars Sir Christopher, called “The City of the Dead!” With the two men responsible for the creation of Amicus Studios at the helm (Subotsky and Rosenberg), this film is impressive because of its atmospherics, and some solid acting.
In 1960, the age of Hammer Studios was just starting to blossom (Cushing and Lee were just beginning their conquering stride through the medium), and everyone else was scrambling to catch up. Most other companies (as a whole) never caught up, but some did produce some very good films that live on! Anytime you mix witches, Christopher Lee, and Massachusetts together, you know you’ve got a winner! Alright, and away we go…
The film begins with a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stake for her unholy actions. One man in the crowd (Puritans?), Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), seems to have a connection to her, and calls out to the devil to help her. It doesn’t seem to help much though, and she’s apparently toast. Fast forward to modern times, and Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), is lecturing some students about these very matters. One student in particular, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), is very receptive to the subject. Her boyfriend, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), thinks it’s a bunch of nonsense, and this angers Driscoll.
Nan then asks Driscoll if he knows of any place where she can visit to help with her term paper on the subject. Driscoll suggests she stay in his ancestral town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where she can get a first hand look and get some real perspective. Her boyfriend, Bill, isn’t too happy about this, but lets her go without much trouble. Just then, Nan’s brother, a professor of science at the same school walks in, and has a go with Driscoll about witchcraft. We see that although Driscoll may look like a wuss, he has a temper, and also a sinister look about him.
The following day, Nan heads out to the town of Whitewood, but seems to get lost in an eerie fog. She happens upon a gentleman and asks him for directions. He tells her the way, but warns her that the town is evil. She continues on, even after he warning. As she gets to a fork in the road, a man is walking nearby. He introduces himself as Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall – image below) and asks for a ride. She invites him in, and he begins to tell her a little about Whitewood. They eventually arrive in town, and their destination, the Ravens Inn. As Nan turns around to get her luggage, but then the man disappears! She heads inside and meets Lottie (Ann Beach), but before she can even try to communicate with her, the owner of the inn appears. We then are introduced to Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel – image below), who has a striking resemblance to the witch, Elizabeth Selwyn.
Later that night, Nan heads out to take a walk around town. It’s very dark and dreary, and the townspeople, who are few, don’t seem to care for strangers. She then heads over to the old church. It seems unoccupied, and in an obvious state of closure. As she attempts to enter, her way is blocked by a minister, claiming to be the leader/caretaker of the church. She questions him about the church and town, but he’ll only remark that there is an evil presence here, and that she should go immediately. She returns to the inn, and settles in for the night.
After a short time, she thin ks she hears some noise below her room. She gets the attention of Mrs. Newless, but after they investigate, there is nothing to be found. Later, Mrs. Newless invites Nan to come out to join the others, who are dancing in the hall. She eventually does, but by that time, no one is around anymore. We are then made aware that this date is of significance for those who worship Satan, which unfortunately is bad news for Nan. At the very stroke of midnight, she again hears some disturbance, and as she looks outside of her window, she can see robed figures walking through the cemetery. She then finds a handle that fits into the trap door in the floor of her bedroom, and uses it to open the door.
Next, Nan decides to head down into the dark basement, but is instantly accosted by two men in robes. They drag her, kicking and screaming to an altar, where we see the townspeople, Mrs. Newless, and Jethrow Keane. They begin a count, and when they reach the number thirteen, the knife is plunged! Over at a party, Nan’s brother, Richard, and her boyfriend, Bill, haven’t heard from her in days, and are worried. They attempt to call the inn, but are told that no such place exists.
Will Bill and Richard find out what happened to Nan and stop the cult from killing again? And what does Professor Driscoll have to do with all of this chicanery? You must watch to find out!
OK, here are my thoughts:
Any time you get a black and white film full of atmosphere and incredible sets, count me in. Even if Lee wasn’t in this picture, it would still be quite good. He does add his normal power and presence, but his screen time is somewhat sparse. His scenes are very important, but I’m used to seeing him as the big star, and not a lesser part. The rest of the cast does a solid job though, and really plays up the scary! Patricia Jessel is especially creepy, and does a fantastic job as the witch. Not lost in the crowd is Dennis Lotis (Nan’s brother), who really takes charge once his sister disappears.
As stated above, the atmosphere in this one is incredible. Even though the film is a little too dark at times, it does add a level of fright that is welcomed. The one and only thing I can say that was pretty bad, was the music score. During a couple of the scenes (mainly driving scenes), the music was a ridiculous upbeat tune that seems more appropriate for a Doris Day/Rock Hudson film. Take that away, and this is an excellent film that should be viewed by any serious fan of the time/genre. Oh, and Venetia Stevenson (image below) is stunning in this film!