Retro-Review: New on BluRay; help me out and pick it up on DVD/BluRay here on Amazon!
THE CITY OF THE DEAD aka HORROR HOTEL (1960)
aka TOWN OF THE EVIL DEAD
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (as John Moxey)
Written by George Baxt (screenplay), Milton Subotsky (story)
Starring Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Christopher Lee, Tom Naylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall, Ann Beach, Norman MacOwan, Fred Johnson, Maxine Holden, James Dyrenforth, William Abney
I find coincidences like this fascinating. THE CITY OF THE DEAD aka HORROR HOTEL is structured almost exactly the same with another little film that was released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. A young woman is led into a dangerous situation and finds herself succumbing to the unknown terrors. The sibling of the victim investigates the disappearance leading them to confront the horror face to face and get to the bottom of the mystery. This is the structure of PSYCHO, but also the same for HORROR HOTEL. Now, Robert Bloch’s book was out before 1960, but still, it feels like one of those happy coincidences that THE CITY OF THE DEAD follows the same format.
While I described the structure of the story above, THE CITY OF THE DEAD is about a young student named Nan (Venetia Stevenson) looking to learn more about the occult. She is sent to a small Massachusetts town called Whitewood by her creepy instructor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), where she spends the night in a lodge called Raven’s Inn. Almost immediately, Nan notices weird chanting coming from the floor below her and is taken aback by the way she is received by the superstitious people on the street. She soon learns that she has arrived on Candlemass Eve, a wiccan holiday, and a sacrifice must be made. When Nan goes missing, her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) goes searching for her, uncovering a town pledging allegiance to Satan and plans for another sacrifice on the Witch’s Sabbath, which happens to be happening soon.
While there are structural similarities and both films do take place in a hotel, THE CITY OF THE DEAD goes schlocky while PSYCHO goes psychological. The hooded witches, smog filled streets, and creepy moonlit cemeteries give this film an atmosphere that oozes old school haunted horror movies. There is a bit of sophistication to the legends of Satanism and I’m sure in 1960, this might have felt somewhat shocking, but it fails to resonate on that level seeing it today. I am surprised at the deaths in this film, which makes it a bit toothier. I also loved the finale as the shadow of the cross makes the witches burst into flames. This makes for a twisted and unique little schlocker with some modern sensibilities.
Christopher Lee is great, as always, bringing heft to the schlock that makes it much easier to digest every moment he’s on screen. There are some really fun scenes where Lee is tooling around his office, washing his hands in his goofy demon-headed fountain, or chanting to the dark lords—all of these bits are simply awesome with Lee being the best Lee he can be.
THE CITY OF THE DEAD is digitally remastered and looks extremely crisp and clean. Most likely, you’re not going to see a better production of it. Included with this Bluray is an extended interview with Christopher Lee about the filming of THE CITY OF THE DEAD as well as his life in film. Any fan of the late great Mr. Lee will have to have this one.