Review: City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960)

Written by George Baxt
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson
US Release Sept. 12, 1962
RT 78 min.
Home Video VCI Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)


Warning: review contains plot spoilers; ending of the movie revealed.

If memory serves, Horror Hotel was first released on VHS in the mid-1990s by Anchor Bay.  At the time, there was a lot of publicity about it as if film historians had discovered it for the first time.  I bought a copy and watched it immediately.  There, my memory fails me.  I haven’t seen it since then and I remember very little about it.  So, when I watched it this week for the first time in almost 20 years, it was like a new experience.  I then realized why I had forgotten about it.  It’s not that memorable a movie.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t love it all the same.

City of the Dead (its original British title) is a masterpiece of mood.  The town of Whitewood in New England is perpetually foggy.  It’s streets, except for the occasional coven of devil worshippers, are vacant and filled with dark shadows.  The atmosphere is filled with fear and the few people who populate the town are mysterious hotel owners, blind reverends, or naïve bookshop proprietors.  I don’t know why anyone would visit Whitewood, much less call it “home,” but that’s exactly what blonde college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) does in order to research witchcraft for her collect term paper.

In many ways, City of the Dead feels like a precursor to more modern horror movies.  For example, there’s a crazy old gas station attendant along the road who gives directions to Whitewood along with a warning to turn around and go back.  More damning for the film is the fact that it was released in the United States theatrically two years after Psycho, even though it was made at the same time, if not earlier.  It must have seemed terribly unoriginal for audiences when the blonde “lead” is murdered halfway through the story.

Yes, poor Nan checks into the Raven’s Inn only to become a sacrifice for the aforementioned coven on Candlemass Eve (February 1).  This causes her brother, Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend, Bill (Tom Naylor) to go looking for her two weeks later when she doesn’t arrive at a birthday party as expected.  They conveniently arrive in Whitewood on Witches’ Sabbath, the second of two days during the year on which a pretty young woman must be sacrificed.  The intended victim this time is Patricia Russell (Betta St. John) the woman who inherited the bookstore and is the granddaughter of the blind reverend.

The final connecting thread is Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) the professor who suggests that Nan goes to Whitewood to do her research.  His family is from there and he seems to have intimate knowledge of its history, which revolves around the burning at the stake of Elizabeth Selwyn in 1692.  Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), who runs the Raven’s Inn, bears a striking resemblance to Selwyn, by the way, just as the creepy hitchhiker who disappears from the passenger seat of cars heading to Whitewood bears a striking resemblance to Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), who prayed to Lucifer when Selwyn was killed.

History says that three years after Selwyn was buried, residents began seeing her in town.  Rumor has it that now there are nights the dead come to life.  The graveyard, adjacent to the Raven’s Inn, supposedly hasn’t been used in 200 years and the dilapidated church no longer has a congregation.  Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan) tells Nan that “for 300 years, the devil has made this his home,” but, as long as he’s standing, “this will be a house of God.”  Despite overwhelming evidence that something’s rotten in Whitewood, Patricia says that only “sometimes” she “almost” thinks she lives with witchcraft.

Once Richard and Bill hit town, the action doesn’t stop in City of the Dead.  By the time Richard and Patricia strike a romantic chord, he’s trying to rescue her from the bowels of the hotel/graveyard before she’s sacrificed as the clock chimes… thirteen.  It’s an exciting conclusion, but what I assume was meant to be a twist involving Driscoll is either poorly delivered or just isn’t a surprise at that point in the story.  The final, final shot, of a charred Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless sitting behind the desk under a plaque commemorating the death of Selwyn is a perfect coda.

With so much to like in its mood and atmosphere, the actual plot of City of the Dead is filled with holes and unbelievable moments.  Writer George Baxt’s resume includes Circus of Horrors, The Shadow of the Cat and Horror on Snape Island.   The basic story of this one, though, comes from Milton Subotsky.  Because of the fact that he and Max Rosenberg (uncredited) produced City of the Dead cause some to consider it the first Amicus Films movie.  This history behind the movie makes its place in horror history as impactful as the history of Whitewood makes it a terrifying place to visit.

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