City of the Dead was released in September of 1960 in England and several months later in the United States, along with an unfortunate re-title Horror Hotel. The change in name didn't help its fortunes in the states and the movie quickly fell off the radar of horror fans the world over. It didn't help that it was released just months after Psycho (but began filming a full month before Psycho) which grabbed all the business and all the headlines with its shocker story and twist ending. Another strange turn of fate was that both films used a similar structure in setting up their respective stories. In both films the heroine goes off on her own to an isolated hotel/motel and around the halfway point of the movie is quickly and unexpectedly killed, both times by stabbing. But that's where the similarities end and one wishes the film had been given a better release because City of the Dead is an excellent tale of witchcraft, sorcery and sacrifice.
Tony Award winning actress Patricia Jessel plays Elizabeth Selwyn, a witch burned at the stake in 1692 but living on in the ghost town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, just the place our heroine, Nan Barlow (Vanetia Stevenson), decides to go to research a paper on the occult. She finds the town by way of her professor, played by Christopher Lee. He recommends it to her having grown up there and we soon suspect the Professor may in fact be a member of a coven intent on sacrificing two women every year, one on Candelmas Eve, and one on the Witches' Sabbath.
John Moxey, the film's director, displays a real gift for mood and atmosphere but don't look for any great list of cinematic achievements from him. Except for this feature film and two others he spent his entire career directing nothing but shows and movies made for television, including the original Night Stalker pilot. But here we can see his visual gifts were strong and he takes the rather drab set of the small town with its storefronts and sidewalks straight from the backlot and infuses it with a real sense of claustrophobia, isolation and creeping menace. And he does an admirable job of creating tension and suspense as our two heroes, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) and the dim Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), race in the end to rescue the second sacrifice before time runs out, in a climax a bit on the ridiculous side (the way the coven is disposed of is questionable for even the most forgiving viewer). Nonetheless, Moxey does a great job with it and it's a shame he didn't have a more successful career with theatrically released movies.
Christopher Lee, affecting an American accent satisfactorily, does well with a small role as does Valentine Dyall in the role of Jethro, Elizabeth's former lover. But the movie is dragged down in the first half by the lifeless Vanetia Stevenson as Nan Barlow, an actress simply lacking all charisma. It's not that she's bad with her delivery, it's that she's blank in her delivery and had the movie focused on her entirely it would have been a lost cause. Fortunately, many of her scenes are played with Patricia Jessel, an actress of commanding strength who rightly grabs our attention every moment she is on the screen.
City of the Dead isn't as famous as a movie with its sense of atmosphere and mood should be but perhaps that will change. It's in the public domain and has been released on a twofer DVD with William Castle's House on Haunted Hill for a dollar. Yes, a dollar for two movies and yes, believe it or not, it's a pretty good transfer. If you can find a copy of it somewhere for sale I recommend giving it a look.
Here is the opening sequence to City of the Dead, an opening sequence I absolutely love. You might recognize the shadowy figures at the beginning as being the stars of my first "They're Coming" trailer for October. The last notes of an 'Ave Satani' type chant (16 years before The Omen) can be heard from the credit sequence as we go to 1692 Massachusetts and the burning of Elizabeth Selwyn. The scene ends by abruptly cutting us to the present as Christopher Lee lectures to his students. Enjoy.
One extra clip. This clip was a "WTF" moment for me when I first saw City of the Dead. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) has been relaxing in her bathrobe and decides to join the guests in the lobby dancing to jazz. In a completely gratuitous moment of "let's show off the blonde" she removes her bathrobe to reveal she is a... French whore! Enjoy.