The City of the Dead
This horror almost-classic has Christopher Lee and great atmosphere. Keep a sharp lookout for All Them Witches: they’re not easy to spot… if you’re as unobservant as Venetia Stevenson’s sexy grad student. Were she studying sharks, this girl would wrap herself in fresh meat and jump into the middle of a mess of ’em.
The City of the Dead
1960 / B&W /1:78 widescreen / 78 min. / Horror Hotel / Street Date March 29, 2016 / 24.99
Starring Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Christopher Lee, Tom Naylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall, Ann Beach, Norman Macowan.
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Production Designer John Blezard
Film Editor John Pomeroy
Original Music Douglas Gamley, Kenneth V. Jones
Written by George Baxt from a story by Milton Subotsky
Produced by Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky, Donald Taylor
Directed by John Moxey
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Interest has been high for VCI’s new The City of the Dead, a movie that creeped us out on TV showings as Horror Hotel. Having been too young to see Psycho first-run, a certain plot twist in this show provided my first horror shock of the, “but they can’t do that!” variety. The City of the Dead has a distinctive look and even sounds different as well… the English actors’ American New England accents are just ‘off’ enough to sound a bit odd.
This show gets high marks on the horror matinee hit parade. It’s an efficient and reasonably engaging witchcraft tale that conjures a few good scares and atmospheric moments. Christopher Lee tops a cast that does well with a mediocre script. Some Italian films around this time tried to make themselves appear American-made, but this English film takes place in America to take advantage of the notion of historical witch burnings, etc. Except for that one narrative surprise, it’s all fairly predictable. But this show understands that, in gothic horror, atmosphere counts for a lot.
The producing team of Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky begin their show in an academic setting, with a college professor who should never have been granted tenure. Eager to research witchcraft and impress her professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), pretty Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) goes against the wishes of her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor). She uses her college vacation to drive North to the tiny New England town of Whitewood, where it is said that witches were burned almost 250 years before. There she meets Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), the haughty owner of a small inn, and is warned by several locals, including young Patricia Russell (Betta St. John) that devil worship may still be active in the dark and foggy hamlet.
From the moment we see Christopher Lee glare angrily at a student who scoffs at his theories on witchcraft, we know we’re in one of those horror movies where certain things have to be taken for granted. Lee’s Professor Driscoll is transparently villainous, telegraphing hidden motives with every gesture. None of his students are the least bit concerned by his sinister reactions. When Venetia Stevenson’s Nan Barlow approaches Whitewood, people start acting like suspicious villagers from an old Dracula movie. We never see the town in daylight; it exists in perpetual darkness. A misty fog hangs over everything, without a hint of a breeze. Patricia Jessel’s insufferably haughty Mrs. Newless condescends to her guest, torments a mute servant and in general behaves so suspiciously, one wouldn’t turn one’s back on her, let alone stay in her hotel. Valentine Dyall’s spectral warlock Jethro Keane is on hand for additional generic menace. He vanishes mysteriously from Nan’s car, but she takes it in stride.
Jessel and Dyall put the movie over the top, providing most of its menace — both have great screen presence. Each wears a slightly sneering facial expression, just enough to be upsetting. Valentine Dyall’s commanding voice is a big asset as well. He narrates many English trailers, and serves as the voice of God in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled. Neither of these creeps will give a simple question a simple answer. Dyall’s Jethrow Keane talks as if he’s the Devil himself, in charge of bigger things.
Naturally, none of this strange behavior fazes Nan in the least. This graduate student in anthropology is alone in a spooky town with a lot of weird locals. This being a horror picture, that is of course the cue for her to strip to her ridiculous music-hall underwear to get ready for bed. Betta St. John’s Patricia is sort of a Marilyn Munster type, oblivious to all the satanic activity around her. She runs her little bookstore without any sign that she ever gets a customer. Her grandfather has (perhaps) been blinded by the town necromancers, and there are no ‘normal’ people about. Yet she seems puzzled when Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) asks her if she has any ideas as to how his sister may have disappeared in Whitewood … on a known demonic holiday. Don’t all New England calendars come marked with the Dark One’s holidays?
All that really isn’t a problem, as we’re in Horror Movie Land. It takes the heroes of The City of the Dead about seventy minutes to finally figure out what we knew going in. But the show does manage some tense moments, and we care about the likeable and attractive cast. It’s definitely old-school, and detractors might call it a Hammer wannabe. In terms of sophistication, it can’t touch thrillers like Curse of the Demon or Burn, Witch, Burn, but it has a charm of its own and has become a favorite for many.
The City of the Dead has curious similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Nan Barlow checks into an inn and is murdered the same night; instead of a lover and a sister investigating her disappearance, it’s a brother and a boyfriend. The concept of one female victim entering a deadly trap with a second almost following in her footsteps is fairly generic, and since Subotsky’s film was shot earlier 1959, he can’t have come home from Hitchcock’s movie raving, “We have to do this, only with witches!” City also utilizes the same witch-burning prologue from Black Sunday, and uses the shadow of a cross as a weapon against evil, as seen in The Brides of Dracula. All of these movies were released in the same year, so calling any of them copycats without full research isn’t a good idea. The City of the Dead is a respectable programmer made from various off-the-shelf genre elements. In his commentary, Moxey broaches the subject and compares his film’s plot to that of Psycho. (Thanks to Tom Weaver for corrections with this.)
In all fairness, the stagey, fog-bound sets representing Whitewood look great, with interesting lighting and compositions. Desmond Dickinson’s B&W camera direction is quite good, even when expressing horror clichés. One nice touch is a shot of several couples dancing in Mrs. Newless’s inn. They spin around like tops, just like the satanic dancers way back in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. As for the sets covered in fog, I give them a solid ‘A.’ Roger Corman would use the same look — a bare stage with naked trees and a fog to cover the floor — on several of his Poe pictures. In color and Panavision, the interior sets never really convinced me.
Today’s fans of course like Christopher Lee most of all, although they need to know that he’s a supporting character here. The good news is that Lee gets a few dialogue scenes to play, when we’re used to seeing him in near-mute roles or dubbed with someone else’s voice. His professor Driscoll is an awfully uptight, twitchy guy. A blind man could see that he’s hiding something, with all of his overstated ‘little reactions’ to mentions of witchcraft or Whitewood.
Venetia Stevenson is a favorite, sort of an angora sweater dream girl type grown into something a bit more substantial. Unlike hundreds of horror bimboes, her Nan Barlow is a serious student, even if she at times seems more than a little dense. Knowing she’s in Witch Country, she nevertheless talks shop about the local superstitions. Her most amusing moment is when she tells Mrs. Newless, “Did you know that covens must first take a personal object from their victims?” And then a second later, follows that with, “Hey, you haven’t seen my gold locket, have you?” Mrs. Newless is a master of the ‘twitchy-subtle’ reaction as well. A fun editorial and writing exercise would be to superimpose subtitles over Chris Lee and Patricia Jessel, revealing what they’re really thinking.
Ms. Stevenson is possibly the only American in a movie that’s supposed to take place in New England. Only the old garage attendant played by James Dyrenforth tries for a genuine New England accent, and gets his “Hickory Farms” twang down just fine.
VCI’s Blu-ray of The City of the Dead is that company’s latest special edition Blu-ray, adding more items to the list of extras on the old 2001 DVD.
The picture itself looks quite good, clean and with a rich B&W gradient that ends in inky blacks. The 1:66 framing looks to me like 1:78, as it fills the frame. The only puzzling thing is that the frame rate looks slightly too fast. People move a smidge too briskly, and likewise the dialogue seems accelerated. It looks like the 25fps of a PAL transfer, for old UK and European DVDS. But this is HD, which is designed to run at the same 24fps frame rate as film. The picture is too good to be a DVD upconvert, so something funky seems to be going on. I’ve heard of HD Blu-rays from Australia being encoded at 25fps, but I can’t say with any authority what’s happening here, because the running time isn’t appreciably shorter than what’s listed in resource books like the Hardy Encyclopedia. There are other possibilities — missing frames? — that could yield the same effect. I have to report what I see, but my experience is that most people don’t notice this effect. To me the already fast dialogue seems a bit too fast, especially when Christopher Lee talks. It wasn’t a big distraction.
But how can the film be sped up, without changing the running time? The time given by VCI and measured off the disc itself, matches the running times given in older resource books like the Hardy Encyclopedia. Something doesn’t add up; perhaps all the running times given are for the slightly shorter Horror Hotel American cut. I’m sure this will be cleared up, if it already hasn’t been, in Video Watchdog.
The first new extra is an SD transfer of the Horror Hotel version, which is pretty fuzzy. It bears out the information that big cuts were made to the opening witch burning sequence. The extra to check out is the audio commentary by Bruce G. Hallenbeck. He gives the expected background on the producers and actors, comments on some of the content and praises elements that impress him, like a a reverse-action shot in the first scene that I didn’t notice. Bruce also gives some hints about a remake of The City of the Dead that he tried to get going at one time. He was going to have Chris Lee play the Valentine Dyall role.
The older extras could have used some editing, but back in 2001 we were excited to see them. Two more commentaries are present. Jay Slater hosts the Lee commentary. Lee’s in fine form and has a lot of information to offer about the actors — Dennis Lotis was a singer, Valentine Dyall had a glass eye. He also describes his difficulties with his American accent. But much of the commentary is a redundant simo description of what we’re hearing and seeing. Lee tries to remember the film as it goes along. He and Slater worry about the name of the town for at least 40 seconds, when it’s being spoken on screen only a few minutes later.
John (Llewellyn) Moxey’s voice track is on the sparse side, with big pieces of feature audio poking through while he tries to recall details: We’re given twenty seconds of feature audio, and then, “We had an art director but no production designer.” Twenty more seconds, then “That’s rear projection. We got an American car somewhere.” Lee and John Moxey’s commentaries may have been better off edited together, but genre diehards won’t mind.
The two men also appear in single interview featurettes. A 45-minute piece with Chris Lee just lets him ramble from subject to subject, as if he’s completely unguided. Director Moxey is an interesting and sincere fellow who organizes his thoughts well but takes a long time to make his statements.
The other older interview piece is with Venetia Stevenson, who we learn is the daughter of director Robert Stevenson and actress Anna Lee. She’s candid and forthcoming, pleased that she’s being interviewed without exactly knowing why. Judging by fan reactions online, The City of the Dead on Blu is going to be well received.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The City of the Dead Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good + / – I believe the frame rate is 25 fps.
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentaries by author Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Christopher Lee and John Moxey; interviews (2001) with Lee, Moxey and actress Venetia Stevenson,; SD transfer of the shorter Horror Hotel version; trailer, photo galleries.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson