Monday, 17 May 2010

The City of the Dead (1960) aka Horror Hotel



About a hundred years ago, when I was in my early teens and dressing a bit like a chubby Cyndi Lauper, in the good old days of VHS when remote controls had strings and you could tape anything you liked off of the old tellybox with impunity, I recorded something late at night in said manner (I’m fairly certain it was the boobilicious Hammer film The Twins of Evil) and after my film of choice the tape ran on gave me the tantalising beginning of another film, then promptly ran out before I could find out what happened. This drove me mad for years. In a sad testament to my own stupidity it was only recently that I thought to try and track it down, which turned out to be a lot easier than I had anticipated, it took me about two seconds , which was a bit embarrassing as I’d already prematurely resigned myself to hours of fruitless internet trawling. The result was 1960’s The City of the Dead. Hurrah for modern technology! And it turns out it’s in the public domain too. Once more, hurrah!

The City Of The Dead, (or Horror Hotel as it is known to our American brothers and sisters) begins in 17th century Massachusetts (where else?) as the requisite mob of town’s folk from Whitewood prepare to burn Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) at the stake for being a witch. The unrepentant Ms. Selwyn has no intention of going quietly, however, and promptly curses said mob and promises to return from the grave to exact her revenge on those who wronged her, which is exactly the kind of behaviour one expects from a burning witch and, frankly, I’d be disappointed not to get it.

The rest of the drama takes place in swinging 60s America, where young student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is studying the history of witchcraft which is apparently taught by Christopher Lee (can you see now why I can’t believe it took me so long to find this?) Nan tells Kissy Lee that she’s planning on conducting some independent research on the subject and Count Lee, somewhat suspiciously it has to be said, suggests his home town of Whitewood as ideal for such an endeavour (you remember Whitewood, it’s where they burn ladies, it’ll probably be important later on).


Our heroine duly consults with her nice but dim science geek boyfriend, and her hepcat science teaching brother (Dennis Lotis ) and neither of them think that this is at all a good idea, but this is entirely redundant because Nan doesn’t care what their science brains think she’s a young historian with a mission and she’s going to damn Whitewood whether they like it or not.

Unfortunately, much as I hate to admit it, it turns out that the science boys were right and Nan probably should have stayed at home and gone to the library. To be honest Nan really should have realised something was erring on the wrong side normal when faced with a sinister mist and a creepy hitcher before she even arrived at Whitewood. The signs were there, Nan, really they were. But our intrepid historian cares not for such trivialities and merrily wends her way to the Raven’s Inn and checks in with the eerily familiar proprietor, Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel. Again) and without any qualms at all happily accepts an invitation to this eerie stranger’s evening soiree. Then some more stuff happens including meeting a cuteypie lady bookseller, some sinister villagers, a minxy flash of our heroine in her underwear (oh, yeah!), some jazz and dancing with the assembled Raven’s Inn ‘guests’ and a portentous blind priest who warns her to get out of town.. Really, Nan, the signs!

Sadly it isn’t all pretty booksellers and dancing (things rarely are) and very soon Nan finds herself abducted into the catacombs below the hotel, where she is ritually sacrificed by the natives. Bet you didn’t see that coming! A black and white movie from 1960 where you trustingly believe the young lady you initially meet on a journey to a creepy location out in the middle of nowhere is our heroine only to find her brutally murdered less than half way through! Who’d have thought it? Wait a minute…….


In the absence of a heroine we are then forced to rapidly switch allegiances and reassess our fictional world. We’ve got a cuteypie bookseller though so that’s ok. It is then left to the science world’s equivalent of the Hardy Boys Nan’s brother, who’s amusingly named Dick, and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) to investigate and sort out this nefarious den of witchery.

While there may not be anything startlingly original about The City of the Dead, it is still a thrilling and bizarrely convincing supernatural horror. I say bizarrely convincing because really, in theory, everything about it shouldn’t work, we’ve got a largely British cast pouncing about exhibiting less than perfect American accents (a refreshing change, I suppose), heavily stylised studio sets representing a small town in New England, perpetual heavy fog rolling about the place, not to mention the support of an assemblage of overly dramatic villagers rhubarbing for all they’re worth. But weirdly, by some form of magical cinematic alchemy, it totally works. Somehow the wrongness of it all combines to create the disturbing, chilling sense of otherness, of a claustrophobic, threatening almost nightmarish other world cut from all security and normality.

It was well worth the two seconds of searching I spent finding it and would have been worth hours of website hopping I had anticipated.

To add to my embarrassment at taking so long to find The City of the Dead it turns out it is pretty well culturally referenced. Iron Maiden used bits of it in the video for ‘Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter’, Rob Zombie used Christopher Lee’s opening words at the beginning ‘Dragula’ and then there’s the Misfits song ‘Horror Hotel’. I hate myself.

7 comments:

  1. No, Jinx, no! Don't hate yourself! Your review has put the first smile on my face on this day of blog browsing and debauchery.

    I really did enjoy this write up though. The comment about the bumped off heroine made me chuckle in devilish delight. Is it any accident that both heroines stopped at a place of lodgings before meeting their ends?

    I've been intrigued by this movie for some time. It looks absolutely gorgeous and Gothic. I think it's lurking around somewhere in those giant DVD collections of public domain films I have. Hooray for the public domain!

    And hooray for Jinx!

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  2. Oh, Joe, thanks for that! I was having a rubbish day filled with petty, nondescript annoyances that had put me in a bad mood and your comment has completely cheered me up. I’m smiling again now, which nice, though I suspect it may be creeping out my work colleagues, they keep eyeing me suspiciously like they suspect I may be up to something.

    There are actually quite a lot of comparables between City of the Dead and Psycho which is interesting. It would be cool to see a post along those lines rather than my vague, frivolous ramblings. As far as I can glean they were released within months of each other so it would seem the similarities are genuinely coincidental.

    I'm so glad I finally saw the end of it, (my tape cut off just before Nan was sacrificed), it really was great and worth the wait. I can heartily recommend you watch it.

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  3. This is a wonderful movie. So eerie and atmospheric. All its predictablities end up feeling CLASSIC instead of trite. What atmosphere!

    This was released just a bit earlier than "Psycho," and some people have claimed it was an influence on it, though it's probably not very likely. I read something online to that effect and referred to it in my review of the film for my Eons.com group. I'll see if I can find it again.

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  4. I just bought this on DVD to round out a recent Amazon purchase so I could qualify for free shipping. Had no idea it was public domain, but hopefully the commentary track will make the money spent worthwhile.

    I haven't watched it yet, but for some reason I've always loved the "witch" subgenre even more than the vampire one. I'd say it could use a revival but I'm afraid of what Hollywood might do to "teen" it up.

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  5. Thanks for clarifying the CotD/Psycho link, Jack. I couldn't quite remember which way round it was so it's a good job for me that you know your stuff. Please, please send me the link for your review when you find it. I'd love to read it.

    Hey there, Mr. G. I totally agree with you on the witchy sub genre and Hollywood would certainly ruin it. That just reminded me of another film I have really strong memories of from childhood that fits into that category, Crowhaven Farm, might have been a TV movie actually, I loved it. Now if I don't that soon it's going to drive me mad. Curse my obssessive mind.
    Oh, I reckon you totally did the right thing buying CotD, I bet the commentary is great. I don't know if it's the DVD version you got, but I'm fairly certain that there's one with a documentary too. I do thoroughly intend to buy a DVD version, I need extras.
    Now off to locate Crowhaven Farm!
    And if anyone has any good witch/satany recommendations do let me know, I'm totally in the mood now.

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  6. Love the bit where the guy in Lee's class says something like "dig that crazy beat" and Lee shoots him a daggers look - takes me back to school every time I see it. Imagine being taught by Christopher Lee. Sick note every day.

    The parts that are structurally similar to Psycho all appear in Bloch's original novel, and the specific idea of dragging out Marion's backstory so her death is more of a shock (she dies at the beginning of the book) had been in Stefano's script from the start, so there's no question of the film being any kind of influence. (The ventriloquist doll story from Dead of Night: now that's a different matter...) Maybe it merely suggests we are wont to get just a teensy bit carried away with ourselves when praising Psycho's innovativeness to the skies...

    Yep, Crowhaven Farm's a tv movie all right, one of the best. A late night ITV classic, like Snowbeast and The Phantom of Hollywood - do you remember that one? Kind of a Phantom of the Opera story about a deformed nutcase that lived on the MGM backlot, dressed up like a medieval torturer, and turned out to be Jack Cassidy, that guy who's the villain in about forty different episodes of Columbo.

    Obviously Black Sunday (or whatever it's called these days - you know; the Barbara Steele one) is a good choice for witchy/satany fun. Have you seen The Seventh Victim? Totally creepy.

    How did you find Rentaghost in the end? Not up to the memories, I'll bet.

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  7. Ah, I knew you wouldn't let me down with lowdown, Matthew, thank you.
    Knew I was right about Crowhaven Farm. Had a look for it after I last posted and it's apparently impossible to find. Will have to work on that. Yup, I totally remember The Phantom of Hollywood, and purely on the basis of the Columbo guy.

    Oh, Rentaghost! I thoroughly enjoyed it and it made really sad at the same time. It wasn't the same, no, but it was still nostalgically wonderful. Cheggers playing pop on the other hand, still nostaligally freaky.

    Oooh, great recommendations too, they'll keep me off the streets for a bit.

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