Sunday, 19 July 2020

The City of the Dead

The City of the Dead - Christopher Lee
Known in the US by the much more relevant name 'Horror Hotel', 'The City of the Dead' was made in 1960 by the production team of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg who would, just two years later, go on to form the legendary Amicus studio.  Written by 'Night of the Eagle' screenwriter George Baxt, funded in part by Nottingham Forest FC and featuring Christopher Lee and Valentine Dyall (Doctor Who's 'The Black Guardian' and the voice of 'Deep Thought' in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) this British made movie, featuring predominantly British actors was set in the US with the cast adopting American accents (with various degrees of success) in order to maximise the movies appeal overseas.

The City of the Dead - Christopher Lee
It opens in the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts in 1692 where Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is being burned as a witch whilst simultaneously cursing the town.  Along with her fellow devil botherer, Jethrow Keane (Dyall), she survives into the 20th century where she runs the mist wreathed towns sole mist wreathed hotel and sacrifices young, nubile virgins - women only, no men need apply - twice a year on two dates that seem peculiarly close together.  Into that hotel comes a young student working on her thesis on the devil worshipping witches of misty Massachusets who, while lying around in her negligee reading ancient tomes, begins to hear scary chanting from beneath the floorboards and surprisingly cool jazz from the hotel lobby before being dragged to her stabby, devily doom.  Hot(ish) on her mist wreathed heels comes her brother and boyfriend wondering why she hasn't been in touch for 2 weeks and it's not long before they too are caught up in the evil mist wreathed antics.

The City of the Dead - Christopher Lee
There's some lazy direction, watch out for two almost identical scenes in the mist wreathed street one featuring our doomed student Nan (Venetia Stevenson) and the other, her brother, Richard (Dennis Lotis), and the movie is generally a fairly sluggish affair. It does though look nice despite being seemingly entirely filmed in a studio,  the mist wreathed street and graveyard of Whitewood appearing suitably dilapidated and I've always thought there was definite Lovecraft-esque vibe to the movie no doubt a result of its American scriptwriter and his decision to locate the movie in Massachusets; the university could easily be Arkham's Miskatonic University and mist wreathed Whitewood could certainly pass for Dunwich and it's a shame he went with old fashioned witchery rather than fully committing and adding in an 'Old One' or two.

The City of the Dead - Christopher Lee
It's very much a transition into the Amicus aesthetic, with the mist wreathing, the aged buildings and the graveyard they are still firmly embedded in the gothic trappings that worked so well for Hammer but its contemporary setting, the focus on liberated(ish) young women, the university campus and the jazz soundtrack all show the nascent stages of a new sensibility and offer glimpses of the direction Subotsky and Rosenberg were going to push their brand of horror movie in once their new production company was up and running and as such what we get is an intriguing mish mash of slightly missed opportunities that is never less than watchable but equally is never more than either.


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