Coming out in 1960 it’s hard to believe that the legendary horror icon Christopher Lee had already previously played The Mummy, Count Dracula and The Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein all for Hammer, yet the City of the Dead would give him a whole new opportunity in a role straight from the American Gothic genre.
Also known by the far tackier title of Horror Hotel the movie made in England at Shepperton Studios was produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg the men behind the famous Amicus Productions setting a template for many of their future films.
Opening on dramatic chanting and haunting hooded images of a faceless figure during the credits we cut straight to 1692 and the hamlet of Whitewood Massachusetts where Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is being dragged from her home by the townsfolk to be burnt as a witch in the square. Screaming and yelling at the assembled onlookers she makes a pact with Satan cursing the city for all eternity before she burns alive.
Jumping to contemporary times we realise we have been seeing the retelling of this terrible tale as told by occult expert and professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) to his class on witchcraft. Finishing up although the majority mock his passionate recount one student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is completely captivated and eager to learn more.
Deeply interested in witches and desperate to experience as much of the bloody history herself on Driscoll’s advisement she decides to visit Whitewood where her teacher says she will be welcome and can investigate the strange and spooky history further first hand.
With both her boyfriend and brother dead set against the idea Nan heads off to Whitewood regardless and after encountering a mysterious stranger on her way who she gives a ride to and promptly disappears she checks into the Raven’s Inn where a plaque marks the site of Elizabeth Selwyn’s fiery end.
Fixated on finding out all about the towns past Nan ignores the slightly odd behavior of the locals, the desperate warnings of the ranting Reverend and several other omens even brushing off the eerie chanting she hears emanating at night from under her room. Her fate seems sealed but can the men of her life intervene before it’s too late? You will have to watch City of the Dead and find out.
The story and set pieces offer enough nasty moments to give even a modern audience the creeps at times man the cast although over playing it slightly do a fine job especially Patricia Jessel who is unsettling throughout. Sadly Lee complete with American accent and studious yet enigmatic demeanor seems underused however as always he is great to watch particularly as it is so early in his career.
Beautifully shot in black and white director John Llewellyn Moxey does a great job evoking a doom ridden atmosphere with sets steeped in fog and foreboding shadow ridden buildings all of which seeps into the soul in the same way the insidious devil worshipers of the town have managed to survive for so many years.
Although slightly old fashioned City of the Dead is a thoroughly entertaining slice of American Gothic with some chilling moments and Arrow as ever offer it up filled with sensational extras making it a must buy for Lee and Amicus fans for sure.