YEAR RELEASED: 1960
DIRECTOR: John Llewellyn Moxey
CAST: Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis and Christopher Lee
PLOT: On the recommendation of her professor (Christopher Lee), a young female student (Venetia Stevenson) travels to the fictional Massachusetts town of Whitewood to do some research into witchcraft. She finds the town occupied by the reincarnation of an infamous witch (Patricia Jessel) burned at the stake in the 17th century; in order to sustain her immortality, virgins must be sacrificed to her every year–and this year, the student has been the chosen victim.
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REVIEW BY ANDREW GARVEY
Known in the US as Horror Hotel, this Shepperton studios filmed, but American set production features horror icon Christopher Lee as a professor whose lectures on 17th century New England witch-burnings inspire a female student to personally research witchcraft in the little-visited, fog-enveloped town of Whitewood.
Opening with a fairly graphic (for the time) scene from 1692 in which those ever-friendly Puritans burn a local witch, the action quickly cuts to Lee, boasting a fine American accent, telling the story to his students, one of whom, played by Venetia Stevenson, pays rapt attention.
Sharing with her trusted professor her plan to visit Whitewood, he helpfully gives her directions and a useful contact he “happens to know” – Mrs. Newless, proprietor of the Raven’s Inn. Professor Driscoll, an intense, controlled character with a cold, hard stare (aren’t all of Lee’s?) argues that witchcraft is real and “the basis of fairy tales is reality, the basis of reality is fairy tales” when challenged by sceptical colleagues and students.
Stevenson’s character Nan Barlow, an uncommonly headstrong female character of the era, leaves her boneheaded boyfriend and bemused brother behind and drives to Whitewood. Nearing her fog-drenched destination (much of the film’s budget must surely have gone on the stuff) she encounters Jethrow Keane, a mysterious character who, in a superbly deep, horror film narrator sort of voice, discusses Whitewood’s history before mysteriously vanishing.
On arrival, Miss Barlow encounters the creepy Mrs Newless and her dark, seemingly deserted hotel. Going out to look at the abandoned church, Miss Barlow wades through more fog and meets yet another creepy local, the blind, old Reverend Russell, who warns her “leave Whitewood, leave tonight before it’s too late.”
Does she follow his advice? What do you think? She of course stays and unpleasant things happen as the mysteries of Whitewood are revealed in consistently creepy fashion.
A public domain film, City of the Dead is, like George Romero’s timeless classic Night of the Living Dead, freely available and easy to find, perfectly legally, all over the internet. Unsurprisingly, given its copyright status, clips of the film have been used numerous times in other media, most famously in the Iron Maiden music video Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter.
While Iron Maiden made excellent use of the film’s atmospheric visuals, their video can’t portray its best qualities. Slow paced but nicely plotted and well written, the acting is largely very good but possibly the film’s best asset is the sound.
Even with foreboding clocks, echoing rooms, crackling fires and chanting acolytes, the voices of Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee), Mrs Newless (Patricia Jessel) and Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall) truly stand out. Lee is of course no stranger to readers of the Spooky Isles but Dyall may be less familiar. Providing the unforgettable voice for the all-knowing computer Deep Thought in the much-loved TV adaptation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also starred in 1963 horror classic The Haunting.
City of the Dead is a truly memorable but criminally overlooked treat. It’s also free. What are you waiting for?
ANDREW GARVEY lives in Staffordshire. He writes (infrequently) about mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, history, horror and folklore. Follow him on Twitter: @AMGarvey Check out more Andrew Garvey articles for the Spooky Isles here.