The City Of The Dead (1960)

The City of the Dead (which was given the more schlock-oriented title Horror Hotel when it was distributed in the US) is the very first film to be produced by Amicus Productions, known at the time as “Vulcan Productions” and is an effective if clichéd tale of witchcraft and black magic, starring Christopher Lee and Patricia Jessel.

As mentioned previously, it is clichéd but in such a way that it’s actually to the film’s benefit rather than its detriment, as what director John Llewellyn Moxey has done is hark back to the style of the Universal horror pictures of the 1930′s and 40′s – in the Ye Olde Village (TM) doors creak and shadows loom, there’s secret stone passageways bedecked by cobwebs and lit only by torchlight, thick fog rolls out of nowhere (occasionally giving an unplanned chuckle as it looks like the fog machine might have gone haywire and belted out too much) spooky sounds and chants emanate from unknown sources and there are rows of listing tombstones in an ancient graveyard full of dead trees that reach up like withered hands grasping for freedom… All great stuff in the Gothic tradition and if you are (like me) a fan of those old Universal movies then you’ll get a kick out of it because it really is done beautifully, the set decoration is fantastic and the black and white photography is crisp and suitably eerie when required.

Though Moxey’s direction often has that “solid if workmanlike” quality of someone who’s mainly had a career in television (working on everything from The Avengers and The Saint to Magnum, P.I. and Murder, She Wrote), there are some inspired moments that really give it a little kick – sometimes it’s just the way the camera moves, as in the prologue where there’s a shot of Selwyn on the stake and the camera closes in to an extreme close-up of her face (which has a peculiar quality, perhaps because it played in reverse as the camera really pulled back from her), or the odd placement of the camera in the corners and slightly at an angle which effectively complements that “not quite right”, nightmarish feel that the characters are experiencing once inside the village, something which at the time wasn’t so commonplace as it would become after being put to such wide use in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead eight years after City of the Dead‘s release.

What’s interesting about the film’s style is that by 1960 a lot of these Gothic conventions had already become anachronistic and were on the way out in horror cinema, indeed it’s telling that perhaps the most widely-recognised uses of the form in that decade were by way of parody/homage on family-oriented TV comedies The Addams Family and The Munsters (with Scooby-Doo getting in on the act by 1969). Even in terms of the British film industry’s contribution to the genre, the success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula) and The Mummy had set in motion a different Gothic aesthetic that would drive future projects, one which played to these being shot in colour and so had lusher tones, especially that legendarily vivid red “Hammer blood”, the appearance of which (alongside Hammer’s great tradition of having buxom beauties in heaving corsets) were signs of censorship relaxing somewhat and a move away from the more implied horror of the Universal pictures, which to some degree City of the Dead preserves. This is particularly noticeable when compared with later films of the era which deal with similar themes, like Witchfinder General or Cry of the Banshee (the former being a great film starring Vincent Price, and the latter being a bad knock-off of it which happens to also have Price picking up a cheque for being in it), both of which are more openly violent and sexualised. That, or you have films that took the black magic and placed it solidly in the present day, mixing in more psychological components and the battle between the supernatural and science, like Jacques Tourneur‘s fantastic Night of the Demon or the underrated Night of the Eagle, something which The City of the Dead had the potential to do plotwise, but never truly explores.

Speaking of the plot, it doesn’t hold any real surprises overall (though there is at least one plot twist that you may not initially see coming – let’s just say there’s a chance it might have been lifted structurally from Psycho, which had been released a few months prior), but it does have a nice sort of Lovecraftian feel in the way that the witch’s curse seems to grip the village and the people living there, like they’re suspended in time and in a place of everlasting torment, purgatory for the crime they committed against her. In the acting stakes, Christopher Lee is suave yet suitably sinister in a smallish role and Patricia Jessel is good value as the unrepentant hag, hovering somewhere between a twisted psychopath and the Wicked Witch of the West, so a little camp but fits in well with the movie’s tone.

All in all, The City of the Dead isn’t quite a classic and it’s not going to rock any worlds, but that being said it’s entertaining stuff with a solid production and tons of atmosphere. If you’re in the mood for some Gothic, spooky fun, well then you’re likely to be in for a pleasant time. Would make a good Halloween treat.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

2 Comments on “The City Of The Dead”

  1. Aaron Gillott says:

    Just a note for anyone out there interested in obtaining this – it is supposedly in the public domain and therefore you’ll find free versions on the net and often some of those “50 pack” horror DVDs will have it too, but a lot of these versions will be the “Horror Hotel” print that was sold to the US market and was cut by several minutes (not to mention the quality probably won’t be up to snuff). I can really recommend the uncut version and the package put together by UK label Redemption Films, which not only is a cracking widescreen transfer of the film but it’s loaded with extras. You can get it at any one of these:

    And for anyone who might be in the US:

    I’m not on commission or anything, just bloody hate accidentally buying films that are cut! :)

  2. Diane Peer says:

    the themes are not mention what are they? Email me please.

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