Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The City of the Dead is an efficient and reasonably engaging witchcraft horror film 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 American-made,
and this English film does the same, with some success. It's predictable and
old-fashioned, but entertaining as well.
Having already surfaced on laserdisc in less-than-optimal versions (and often under its American
title Horror Hotel), VCI's The City of the Dead is both complete and of
excellent quality. It came out almost three years ago; perhaps a re-issue accounts for its being
offered as a screener now.
Eager to research witchcraft and impress her professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher
Lee), Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) goes against the
wishes of her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Tom Naylor (Bill Maitland) and
uses her college vacation to journey to the tiny New England town of Whitewood where witches
almost 250 years before. There she meets Mrs. Newlis (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 glaring angrily at a student who scoffs at his theories
about 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.
The town is in perpetual darkness, night and day. A misty fog hangs over everything without
a hint of a breeze. Patricia Jessel's insufferably haughty Mrs. Newlis condescends to her guest,
torments a mute servant and in general acts so suspicious, one wouldn't turn one's back on her,
let alone stay in her hotel. Valentine Dyall's spectral warlock is on hand for additional generic
menace, vanishing mysteriously from Nan's car. Naturally, Nan isn't bothered by any of this; she,
a graduate student
in anthropology, strips to her ridiculous music-hall underwear and relaxes. The local bookshop
owner played by Betta St. John seems to be in a state of total denial. Her father raves about
witches and there's evidence all around that witches are practicing their evil rites, yet she's
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.
In other words, we're in Horror Movie Land. It takes the heroes of The City of the Dead
about 70 minutes to finally figure out what we knew going in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing,
as this low-budget English horror film from the Rosenberg/Subotsky team does manage some tense moments,
and we care about the likeable and attractive cast. It's definitely old-school,
a Hammer wannabe unsure of its footing. 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 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 an
acquaintance. The concept of one female victim entering a deadly trap with a second almost following
in her footsteps is fairly generic, so unless Subotsky came home from Hitchcock's movie early in
1960 raving, "We have to do this, only with witches!", there's not much meat on the debate.
City also utilizes the same witch-burning prologue from
La maschera del demonio, and the
shadow of a cross used as a weapon against evil, from The Brides of Dracula. All three of
those movies were released in the same year, so calling Subotsky's film a copycat 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. 1
In all fairness, the stagey, fog-bound sets at Whitewood look great, with interesting lighting
and compositions. Desmond Dickinson's B&W style is very attractive, even when expressing horror
Today's fans of course like Christopher Lee most of all, although they need to know that he's a
supporting character here. He's actually given some real dialogue
scenes to play, when we're used to seeing him in near-mute roles or dubbed with someone else's voice.
Venetia Stevenson is a favorite, sort of a 50s angora sweater dream girl type grown into something
a bit more substantial. Unlike hundreds of of horror bimboes, her Nan Barlow is a serious student. Ms.
Stevenson is possibly the only American in a movie that's supposed to take place in New England.
The impersonations of American accents are good, but they're all just a little bit off,
which gives the film a strange artificiality. Only the old garage attendant played by James
Dyrenforth tries for a genuine New England accent, and gets his "Hickory Farms" twang down
VCI's The City of the Dead disc, originally released in 2001, looks terrific. It's both more
complete and far better looking than the earlier laser disc version, with a sharp and detailed
enhanced transfer. The VCI people went to a great
deal of effort to make the disc fan friendly, to the extent of crediting frequent contributors to
the Mobius Forum on screen. The disc
itself is packed with commentaries and interviews, not to mention the de-rigeur trailer, photo
galleries, bios. etc.
If anything, the celebrity participation needed some editing. A 45-minute interview with Chris
Lee sounds great until we find out that much of it is an aimless ramble. Director John (Llewellyn)
Moxey is an interesting and sincere fellow
who organizes his thoughts well but takes a long time to make his statements. 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, his own difficulty with his
American accent. But he mostly accompanies the story with a redundant simo description of what
we're hearing and seeing. Lee's trying to remember
the film as it goes along, and ends up guessing at the details of the story. 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 Moxey's voice track is very sparse, with big pieces of feature
track poking through while he tries to recall details: Twenty seconds of feature audio, 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 perhaps genre diehard don't mind.
The clever packaging has a reversible cover with alternating art (I like the one with the
look, myself). The menu animation is slower and more complicated than much of what's being done
today, but lends itself to the spirit of the disc. All in all, this is a rewarding horror offering.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The City of the Dead rates:
Supplements: Interview with and Commentary by director John Llewellyn Moxey, Interview
and commentary with Christopher Lee, Interview with Venetia Stevenson, trailer, stills & bios.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 25, 2004
1. In his commentary,
Moxey broaches the subject, compares his film's plot to that ofPsycho. According to him, the
American film came later.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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