The City of the Dead, 1960.
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey.
Starring Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Christopher Lee, Tom Naylor, Valentine Dyall, Venetia Stevenson, Fred Johnson, and Norman Macowan.
A student travels to a remote New England village to research a paper on witchcraft, only to discover that the old legends of sacrifice may not be as in the past as she would like.
By 1960 Christopher Lee had already played his most iconic role for Hammer Films in Dracula, as well as appearing as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein and the titular monster in The Mummy, and although he would go on to become a huge box office star in various other genre outings it was in this period during the early ‘60s (i.e. before he was churning out Dracula sequels on a regular basis) that he made some quite interesting little movies, and The City of the Dead is probably one of the more notable ones, if only because it was the first film made by Vulcan Productions who, a few years later, would change their name to Amicus Productions and become a rival to Hammer over the next decade.
In it, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a young student learning about the history of witchcraft from her tutor Alan Driscoll (Lee) for a term paper. Upon the advice of Driscoll she travels to the remote village of Whitewood in the hope of learning about Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), the most famous case of witch burning from the village where Selwyn was ousted as a witch and worshipper of Satan before being burnt at the stake, placing a curse on Whitewood as the flames licked higher, but when Nan arrives she discovers that the locals act a little odd when she is around. After booking in at the local hotel, run by the creepy Mrs. Newless (also played by Jessel), Nan discovers a trap door in the floor of her room and, despite a warning from Newless to keep out, she goes investigating after hearing strange noises coming from under the floorboards.
Not long after, Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) arrive in Whitewood to look for her as she failed to show up at a party they had arranged and learn from book shop owner Patricia (Betta St. John) that Nan had disappeared suddenly. She also reveals that Whitewood is under the curse of Elizabeth Selwyn and her coven, and that sacrifices are still carried out in order for the coven to remain immortal. As Richard and Bill delve deeper into village life, that’s when the coven turns their attention to Patricia…
When it comes to horror movies about witchcraft then The City of the Dead is certainly one of the most atmospheric, thanks mainly to some clever use of lighting and silhouette – especially during the final scenes – and also the fog machine that seems to be in overload throughout most of the film. Although not especially scary and certainly not gory, the film does have an aura about it that is reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, also released in 1960 and opening with the execution of a witch, which bubbles away at a consistent level without the film having to rely on shock tactics to force a reaction. The plot itself is fairly straightforward and the fact that Patricia Jessel plays both Selwyn and Newless (say both names backwards) tells you all you really need to know about where the film is going once the main story settles in, but setting up that plot is perhaps the best part of the film as Nan drives to Whitewood and is met at a fork in the road by a mysterious local (Fred Johnson) who asks for a ride, only to vanish without trace once they arrive in the village. The filmmakers use the same trick again when Patricia drives to Whitewood later on and although it is never really explained and serves no purpose for the plot it does lend an edge of something not being quite right that plays into the stares and looks that Nan, and later Richard, gets from the passing locals. There is also a dancing scene in the hotel that ends abruptly as Nan walks into the room that doesn’t add anything other than a feeling of unease and that is what The City of the Dead does so well throughout, subtly throwing you off your guard and creating nightmarish images without being overt.
What lets the film down the most, though, is the level of acting from the majority of the cast. Christopher Lee is the obvious standout and despite not being in the film all that much his presence is very much felt throughout, although part of that could be in retrospect as he is the most well-known actor in it. Venetia Stevenson adds a bit of 1950s/’60s glamour but is quite painful to listen to as her voice is quite monotone (and still is if you watch the special features), and Tom Naylor is just plain irritating as Bill, although Dennis Lotis and Patricia Jessel fare a little better, with Jessel’s striking looks overcoming her almost hammy (at points) delivery. The rest of the cast are all fairly bland and seemingly reading lines without putting in too much effort – although Norman Macowan as Patricia’s blind priest father does go a little too much the other way with his puritanical outbursts, especially as he clearly isn’t blind in real life and doesn’t try too hard to disguise the fact – but it is the visuals and mood that really set this film apart from the rest of the low-budget occult thrillers from the period.
This dual-format set includes both the uncut UK version and Horror Hotel, the shorter US version of the film which omits a key part of the early witch burning scene, and certainly looks the business, coming in a crystal-clear 4K restoration with a few neat extras, the best of which being a 45-minute interview with Christopher Lee in which he tells a few tales about his career and the actors and directors he has worked with. There are also interviews with Venetia Stevenson and director John Llewellyn Moxey that are informative but not quite as much fun, and also three separate audio commentaries from Lee, Moxey and film critic Jonathan Rigby that add a bit more info, and so overall The City of the Dead as a film is something of a low-key jewel in the crown of classic horror movies that is far from perfect thanks to some dodgy acting and overuse on certain genre trappings but manages to succeed in inducing the kind of dread that most big-budget studio pictures – with all of their effects trickery – seem unable to replicate, and as a Blu-ray purchase it is one that should be at the top of any cult movie collector’s list as it is unlikely there will be a better or more definitive presentation of it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★