The City of the Dead (1960) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

City-of-the-Dead_posterThe late Sir Christopher Lee stars in this creepy chiller from the pen of Fedora favourite, George Baxt. Although a story of the occult, it is much subtler than the woeful US title, Horror Hotel, might suggest. Indeed, I think it bares comparison with its better-known contemporaries like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Bava’s Black Sunday (all released in 1960) while also looking forward to Lee’s later classic, The Wicker Man. Like that film, this is a movie that feels scarily plausible, a modern day story of people who still believe in ancient supernatural forces.

This review is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Sweet Freedom.

Professor Alan Driscoll: “The basis of fairy tale is in reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.”

Set in New England (but shot entirely on the large sound stages at Shepperton Studios in the UK), we open with a 17th century prologue that sees the burning at the stake of a woman (Patricia Jessel) accused of witchcraft by a group of Puritan zealots in the Massachusetts town of Whitewood. In a nice touch, she doesn’t in fact repudiate this but curses the village and then calls on Satan to save her if she promises to do his bidding for ever more. Which is to say that, from their point of view, the mob is in fact completely justified! This is the same opening we will see in Bava’s Black Sunday, and both of these films will then move forward in time and see the witch re-incarnated. There the similarities largely end as the plots diverge with City of the Dead somewhat surprisingly coming very close to Psycho instead. In the present day we follow a blonde woman (Venetia Stevenson) head on a car trip and stop at a small hotel. There she discovers that something rather strange is going on and decides to investigate. When she and her car go missing, her sibling and boyfriend head out in search of the missing woman and discover a dark secret in the basement of the hotel and the remains of a very old lady.

City of the Dead was shot more or less at the same time as Psycho (and was in fact released earlier), so there is no question of the Hitchcock movie having been ripped off, though of course the original Robert Bloch novel preceded both of them. There are similarities, but they are I believe mostly incidental. What impresses here is the fine fog-filled atmosphere (beautifully shot by the great Desmond Dickinson, who lensed Olivier’s Hamlet), its general understatement and its subtle ratcheting up of suspense leading to several shocking moments (which it would be wrong to reveal). Patricia Jessel is especially good in the dual role of the witch and the hotel proprietor, while Lee is great as the stuffy professor who hides a terrible secret. For a low-budget little chiller, this film still packs a punch thanks to Moxey’s inventive direction, a committed cast that plays the story completely straight, a really shocking twist a half hour in and several well executed shocks, all leading to a surprisingly kinetic finale. I’ve deliberately kept this review short as I wanted to just wanted to provide enough to tantalise and make you seek it out. It’s a terrific thriller with supernatural elements, punching way above its weight – a true forgotten classic. Don’t miss it.

City-of-the-Dead_DVDDVD Availability: A superb special edition was released ages ago by VCI featuring a superb uncut print (of the British edition) with tons of extras including two audio commentaries, one featuring Lee, the other Moxey, both of whom also appear, along with Stevenson, in individual career retrospective video interviews that combined last about 80 minutes. It is also available to view online all over the internet.

City of the Dead (1960)
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Producer: Donald Taylor, Milton Subotsky
Screenplay: George Baxt (story by Milton Subotsky)
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: John Blezard
Music: Douglas Gamley (jazz music by Ken Jones)
Cast: Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Patricia Jessel, Valentine Dyall, Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor, Betta St. John

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Christopher Lee, George Baxt, John Llewellyn Moxey, New England, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to The City of the Dead (1960) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Sergio. It takes a deft hand to create this sort of horror story and make it actually seem plausible (which, as you say, makes it all the scarier). Interesting the similarities between this one and Psycho (although as you point out, not a shock). Certainly sounds like one worth seeking out.

  2. Good review, Sergio, thanks. I am going to look for this one. British films from that era and genre are just dripping with atmosphere. Director Moxey also did “The Night Stalker,” the TV movie starring Darren McGavin as Kolchak the reporter who finds a vampire in Vegas.

  3. Colin says:

    Good choice. A wonderfully creepy movie and a very effective piece of budget filmmaking. It’s packed with atmosphere and Moxey directed it with a good deal of panache. That US title really is dreadful, suggesting something vaguely comedic.
    I have the VCI disc myself and I agree it’s a neat package.

    • Thanks chum – I would love a decent Blu-ray of this but the DVD is very good. I’m not especially a horror fan but love films like this with bags of atmosphere and which are more understated. I think Valentine Dyall slightly overdoes it, but I love that scene when she picks him up near the lamp post – reminded me weirdly of The Exorcist (now there’s a horror film everybody likes but that I’m not a big fan of)

      • Colin says:

        Well I’m not a fan of The Exorcist either so you’re not alone on that. Horror cinema is a varied beast and I’m kind of picky and perhaps not all that consistent in what works and doesn’t work for me.

        • I think we are probably fairly similar in this. I know on the whole that I am fairly conservative for the most part – On the one hand, I much prefer black and white expressionist titles, like those from Universal in the 30s and Val Lewton in the 40s (with Wise’s The Haunting and Tourneur’s Night of the Demon as adjuncts) and I believe The Innocents to be a great film. I am a bit selective when it gets to Hammer in the 50s and 60s but love Corman’s Poe films and anything by Bava (whereas I can live without anything by Fulci or Argento after the 70s). On the other hand I have a lot of time for the first Hellraiser, Re-animator, the re-make of The Fly, love John Carpenter, Yuzna’s Society, the Evil Dead films and even enjoyed the first Omen movie, so all a bit of a fish mash – bewildering, really, even to myself …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, that’s broadly in line with my own taste in the genre, although I’m less enamored of the “body horror” stuff in later years. What I like and don’t like makes sense to me of course, which is probably as much as I can hope for. I suppose atmosphere, mounting dread and the like is what I go for rather than grossness or shock.

          • I agree with all fo that – and I should add, the examples from the 80s are probably close to the sum total of ones I would be able to come up with, though i should add that I remain very impressed with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not that I particularly want to see it again – but it’s brilliantly made.

          • Colin says:

            I haven’t seen that in years and remember little about it now.
            Every so often a nicely atmospheric chiller is still made, the type of thing which appeals to my own innate horror conservatism so I think the genre continues to have something to offer me.

          • Recently saw CABIN IN THE WOODS and for the most part really enjoyed it for its savvy take on the genre, though the ending did annoy me, I will admit. I think THE MIST is very good as an update on 50s monster movies (especially the black and white version on DVD).

          • Colin says:

            Never seen The Mist but have been tempted – thanks for the recommendation.

          • I thought it was very good and with a once-seen, never forgotten ending.

  4. John says:

    This movie had a HUGE effect on me when I first saw it as a kid. I think I was only 11 or 12 at the time. Of course it was on TV (and under the title HORROR HOTEL) when I saw it. I guess it was most likely cut to shreds, missing all the real terrifying moments though it certainly scared the pants off me at the time. No other movie about witches could compare to it for years. I remember talking about the “shadow of the cross” to my friends for years afterward and how no other horror movie ever made use of such a method to kill a movie monster, so to speak. Oddly enough, I’ve never re-watched this movie since I first saw it back in 1972 or so. Time to remedy that. I’m going to watch it tonight!

    I also like another of Baxt’s horror movies from this era THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) which hints at his wicked sense of humor that he would explore more fully (and racily!) in his crime novels of the late 1960s.

    • Thanks very much John – I must watch Shadow of the Cat again, it’s been ages! I do really enjoy Baxt from this era

      • John says:

        Watching this again was like seeing it for the first time. So much of it made more sense to me this time. I had no idea that Christopher Lee appeared in it as much as he did. My memory of the TV version was correct — it had been cut to pieces. Nearly all of Lee’s scenes as Driscoll had been removed! I remember that in the TV version I saw he only appeared in the final scenes of the ritual sacrifice. Back in the 70s all of my friends who had also seen it on TV wondered why his part was so small.

        There are over twenty uploads of this movie on YouTube and so many of them are dreadful. I didn’t come across that version you found and provide the link for in your reply to Prashant. Instead I found one with Greek subtitles! It was the only upload I came across with the sharpest resolution and a full screen image. Actually, it looks to be slightly better than the one you found. After a while the Greek subtitles weren’t such a distraction.

        Thanks again for the reminder about this and your tempting review that got me to watch again one of my all time favorite scary movies. It still remains high on my list of the best movies dealing with witches, black magic and curses.

        • Thanks very much John, so kind of you. I’ve never seen the Horror Hotel iteration – I wonder if it was cut for length of it was censored so as not to seem like authority figures like college professors were not to be trusted? I’m really glad I’ve got the DVD as the extras are very extensive while the picture quality is first rate.

  5. le0pard13 says:

    Oh, this sounds splendid. Will look out for it. Thanks, Sergio.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    This is a supernatural film involving witches, pact with Satan, black mass and so on. Not for me.
    In no way can this film be regarded as similar to Psycho. Psycho, though a horror film, was fully rational with absolutely no supernaturalism.

    • Hi Santosh, well, I think we shall have to disagree because from a strict plot standpoint, in terms of the basic character set-up and the detail of what happens to whom, in what order, and how, the two are in fact extremely similar – also, the supernatural element only really comes out in the last 5 minutes or so – don’t you agree?

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Well, the supernatural element is there not only in the last 5 minutes but previously also.
        Nan Barlow picks up a hitchhiker who disappears on arrival.
        Similar is the experience of Patricia Russell.
        About a dozen people dancing in the lobby of the hotel disappear instantaneously.
        While Maitland is travelling in a car, he is attacked by supernatural forces.
        One thing I didn’t understand. If the Minister knew the method to get rid of the witches, why was this method not applied before?
        The film is available on You tube.

        • Hiya Santosh – I do take your point, but would also argue that the people ‘vanishing’ is always presented by the protagonist looking away, then looking back and the other people aren’t there any more, and thinking ‘that’s odd’ but nothing more – you on;t see people ddematerialise or anything like that. This allows for a rational explanation, right? Obviously this is essentially a sppoky movie but the ambiguity seems to me crucial here and the point I was trying to make was as to the broader interpretation of the words ‘thriller’ and ‘horror’ – I agree, by the end this is asupernatural story, no question, but until the climax you are nto so sure – which I think is intentional (and which makes it acceptable within the definitions of my blog – see what i did there?)

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    4/5 is a high score for you. Will have to keep an eye out for it.

  8. tracybham says:

    Creepy thriller? I am not so sure about that one. I have never watched Psycho either, although I may force myself to do that someday.

  9. Yvette says:

    Sounds as if I ought to watch this, Sergio. Mostly because I love your enthusiasm about it. You really REALLY like this and really REALLY recommend it. And even though I’m not one for being scared at the movies – I’ll look for it. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being chicken. But the truth is: I’ve never watched PSYCHO even if I guessed the ending once I’d read the reviews. Though I may have seen about half an hour of it. I have vague memories.

    • Thanks Yvette – I do use ‘really’ a lot, don’t I? I was noticing this the other day … But it’s a great, creepy, atmospheric film, modest but superbly made, a really smart genre movie that is, yeah, a bit scary, but it’s from 1960 so never gory or too intense. On the other hand, if psycho really isn’t much of a draw either, this just may not be your particular cup of java. Easy to find in its entirety online (don’t for get the variant US title, Horror Hotel) …

  10. Yvette says:

    P.S. I’ve never seen JAWS in its entirety either. I know, there’s no hope for me.

  11. Sergio, a creepy thriller with an early avatar of Christopher Lee sounds interesting. I’m assuming this is a black and white film in which case it’ll be that much more appealing to watch. I don’t think I have not seen Lee as a young actor, certainly not in his 30s or 40s.

  12. Denny Lien says:

    It sounds interesting, but I’m afraid any movie which opens with a scene of “burning a witch in Salem, Mass.” loses me right there. (No witches, or supposed witches, were burned in Salem — aside from Giles Corey, who was pressed to death for refusing to plead, all of the victims were hanged.) / Denny Lien

  13. Todd Mason says:

    I’m glad to have lured Denny Lien (often not so much an A/V as text guy) to comment here…and I hope to take a look at your linked version here soon….the utter contempt with which hororr films were treated in the ’60s in the US, particularly if imported, continues to distress even now…perhaps I’m fortunate never to have stumbled across the US cuts. Baxt definitely one of the good ones, along with Charles Beaumont, in this era…and I’m pleased to see how much I agree with your cited favorites among horror film, though I suspect you like more Carpenters and Argentos (Argenti) than I–and you didn’t mention DePalma (ha), nor the likes of INNOCENT BLOOD (I have to wonder what you’d make of MARTYRS or what you thought of Almodovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN…wait, you did review the latter, I think/shall check). And hope you’ve had a chance to see the charming PENNY by now…saw a bit of THE WOMAN IN GREEN on one of our new little broadcast networks the other day, but alas I landed late and the network lards all films with commercials criminally.

    • Thanks Todd – no, not seen Martyrs yet (looks a bit gory to me, though I quite enjoyed the first Saw as a disguised whodunit, despite its truly stupid Old Testament ideology). Not seen the Almodovar yet actually (darn!). Well, yeah, I’m a kid of the 70s and 80s, so Landis (really like Werewolf and Innocent Blood), De Palma, Argento (well, up to 1981 anyway) would all be in there – about half of Cronenberg goes a long way, though I recently saw The Brood on the big screen and it still works in its raw way. Hang on though, Penny as in Penny Dreadful, or ..? Woman in green, well, I’ll be re-watching that shortly, on Blu-ray …

      • Todd Mason says:

        PENNY as in PENNY AND THE POWNALL CASE. MARTYRS is an utterly serious film that is in no way to be lumped in with the likes of SAW or HOSTEL or HUMAN CENTIPEDE, so of course it is…not an easy watch (comparable to a Pasolini film that instead doesn’t at all revel in the subjugation on display)…yes, I find I like Cronenberg films where people actually enjoy sex (such as A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) more than those where it’s at the root of all that is wrong with existence (every Cronenberg film before that one, though some, such as VIDEODROME, can be compelling in their OTT way). Well, as a kid in the ’70s and arguably the earliest ’80s, you know that the charms of De Palma’s films are still lost on me…but Bava! Even Fellini imitating Bava, as with “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” is fun as far as it goes. And stumbling across the likes of THREE CASES OF MURDER or the original CAT PEOPLE (I at least had been pointed toward CARNIVAL OF SOULS and had been waiting for an opportunity to see it) for the first time was always a delight.

        • Sorry for rubbing the wrong Pennies together there 🙂 I do want to see that. I cannot imagine watching Human Centipede (though I did see Pasolini’s Salo, which I hope to never see again). I have never been able to engage with VIDEODROME at all. I’m not very hardcore really – I revere the Val Lewton films of the 40s – and yes, the Wendy Toye episode inside the painting from THREE CASES is wonderful, isn’t it?

  14. Oh my goodness, like John above I saw this when I was young and it terrified me, and it has always stood out in my memory as one of the best such movies. And I totally agree about the structure being like Psycho – the shift of focus from one woman to another struck me at the time. It’s a GREAT movie, thanks for the reminder.

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