Shortly before the dawn of the 18th century in Massachusetts, accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn is dragged from her home after the gruesome death of a local girl is unveiled. As the flames of a burning stake lick at her feet, Selwyn rants about the incomparable power of Satan and places a curse on all who stand before her. You can't keep a good witch down, and even after the town watched the fire consume her, both blood sacrifices and sightings of Selwyn continued for decades. Several hundred years later, the story of Elizabeth Selwyn has become fodder for a course taught by Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Though the majority of his students are dismissive of such tales, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) takes a particular interest and seeks Driscoll's advice on where to travel in New England to research her senior paper. Driscoll points her towards Whitewood, the location mentioned in that day's lecture, and even recommends the cheerfully named Raven's Inn. Against the wishes of her boyfriend and brother, Nan arrives in the tiny xenophobic town and immediately begins chatting up creepy innkeeper Mrs. Newless, the blind reverend of an abandoned church, and a helpful bookstore clerk who lends her a tome on Satanic rites. Nearly as soon as she arrives in Whitewood, Nan disappears ominously on the night of Candlemas Eve. Her friends and family soon become concerned, but find the townsfolk to be less than forthcoming. Bill and Richard take it upon themselves to investigate, where they learn the terrible truth of Whitewood.
Modern movies with Satanic elements tend to be far too over the top, often trying to provide the Devil with some sort of physical manifestation and mixing in an excessive amount of preachiness. I'm sure it doesn't help that the only other movies themed around sacrifice and devil worship that I've seen in the past couple of years are Lost Souls and Bless The Child. Though City Of The Dead didn't have tens of millions of dollars at its disposal or that level of relatively well-known stars, it still manages to build an atmosphere that's effectively creepy. Sure, it might be painfully obvious at times that the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts was constructed on a set somewhere in Great Britain, but the scenery doesn't unduly call attention to itself frequently. Much along the same lines, the cast is predominately British, but that just makes their characters sound all the more eeeevil. Christopher Lee's performance, even if it was in more of a minor role, successfully washed the bad taste of The Return Of Captain Invincible from my mouth. The lovely Venetia Stephenson brings back memories of Janet Leigh in Psycho, which was coincidentally released earlier that same year. Both Marion Crane and Nan Barlow are strong-willed, multi-dimensional female characters, and despite their blonde locks, they amount to far more than just set dressing or mindless monster fodder. Both are also set up as the leads, but the rug is pulled out from under the audience just before the halfway point in their respective films. I'm not attempting to make the case that City Of The Dead stacks up to Psycho as any sort of motion picture classic, but these sorts of twists and some inspired direction (most memorably the stabbing motion that marks the transition from Nan's story to that of her concerned family) leave this movie holding up rather well.
Video: The source material is in immaculate condition, and the resulting 1.66:1 anamorphic presentation is stunning. The black-and-white image is crisp, sharp, and, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Contrast is spot-on, offering deep, inky blacks. There are far fewer bits of dust and various specks than I was expecting, and their very infrequent appearances are essentially limited to just a couple of shots. Though presumably some digital tweaking was done to minimize flecks and any print damage, the sorts of artifacts and flat, video-like appearance that often results from that sort of processing are entirely absent. Though quite a number of scenes are filled with smoke and fog, which are notoriously difficult to compress, their presence in City Of The Dead is smooth and natural, failing to devolve into the sort of pixelated soup seen on lesser DVDs. My collection of black-and-white movies is sorely lacking, but looking at the wide gradient of grays in this highly detailed image makes me reconsider some of my purchasing decisions in that respect. An exceptional effort.
Audio: VCI Entertainment has provided a robust Dolby Digital mono soundtrack that belies the film's age. Though obviously a single channel isn't going to envelop the den or provide spleen-burstingly-low frequencies, any concerns of this strong audio are just as scarce as in the excellent video presentation. There is no underlying hiss or distortion, nor is the tinny, harsh quality often present in older, lower-budgeted films. Dialogue is crystal-clear, and dynamic range is about impressive as monaural audio gets. High marks all around.
Supplements: A loaded special edition has been assembled for this DVD release of City Of The Dead. It'll take over five hours to explore the disc fully, which isn't bad for a movie that squeaks by at 76 minutes. Director John Moxey contributes one of the two screen-specific commentary tracks. I've grown accustomed to commentaries that are heavily centered around groan-inducing jokes and goofy production anecdotes, and to hear a discussion like Moxey's is a welcome change. He delves deeply into technical aspects, such as the motivation behind certain shots, the construction fo sets, and the importance of the unusual faces that he was largely responsible for appearing in the film. Moxey also tosses out a number of other interesting tidbits, such as the gun he used to decorate one set with cobwebs and how crew pored over American fashion magazines to get an idea of what sorts of undergarments Venetia Stevenson should be wearing. Christopher Lee also provides a commentary track. Interestingly, despite his limited role in the film, Lee is more talkative throughout than Moxey is. This is due in large part, I'd imagine, to the presence of British film critic Jason Slater, who moderates the discussion. Enough time has passed since his last viewing of City Of The Dead that throughout the commentary, Lee is often trying to remind himself of what's happening on-screen and what sort of dialogue is being passed back and forth between the characters. Much of the discussion relates to the film, but on a broader scale, as the horror icon speaks at length about what makes horror films effective from the perspective of both the audience and the actors in front of the camera.
The three newly-recorded interviews on this DVD total an hour and a half, nearly down to the second, which is a fair amount longer than City Of The Dead itself. This is, as far as I can recall, the first interview I've seen with Christopher Lee, running just under 45 minutes. Much like his commentary, the focus is less on City Of The Dead itself, preferring to take an even broader look at Lee's career. Christopher Lee is incredibly personable and as intelligent as he is talented, and this lengthy interview reflects that. John Moxey appears again as well for a 26 minute discussion that covers much of the same ground from the commentary, but is entertaining nonetheless. The third and final segment is with Venetia Stevenson, who had never before been interviewed on-camera. The shortest of the three interviews, Stevenson also doesn't feel confined about just talking about City Of The Dead. She chats about her father, director Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, The Absent-Minded Professor, Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, and a hefty portion of Disney's live-action output in the '60s and early '70s), and her life after the several prolific years spent as an actress. Other supplements include a still gallery, detailed cast/crew bios, and a full-frame American trailer. Also of note is that the cover art for City Of The Dead is reversible. Given how easily the insert can be flipped, it's a shame that more companies haven't done anything along these lines, especially with the liberties some studios are taking with theatrical poster art. I don't ordinarily mention menus in my DVD reviews, but the well-designed animated menus on this disc are attractive and easily navigable. The transitions are eye-catching without devolving into the exercise in tedium that's so prevalent nowadays.
Conclusion: How much someone is likely to enjoy City Of The Dead is dependent on his or her appreciation for this brand of atmospheric, neo-gothic British horror. The word 'definitive' is bandied about on the back of the case, and this DVD release from VCI Entertainment is more than worthy of such a label. The gorgeous presentation and such a large number of quality extras are not only worthy of the $20 asking price at most retailers, but even warrants upgrading for owners of previous releases. City Of The Dead is not for those whose idea of horror includes shoddy CGI and Matthew Lillard, but for all others, this DVD comes very highly recommended.