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.
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 clichés.
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 just fine.
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 pocketbook-pulp 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:
1. In his commentary,
Moxey broaches the subject, compares his film's plot to that ofPsycho. According to him, the
American film came later.