John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960
Starring: Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Betta St. John
"I have made my pact with thee O Lucifer! Hear me, hear me! I will do thy bidding for all eternity. For all eternity shall I practice the ritual of Black Mass. For all eternity shall I sacrifice unto thee. I give thee my soul, take me into thy service."
Nan Barlow, an eager college student, takes her professor’s advice and goes to the remote New England town of Whitewood to do some research on the area’s legendary occult history. But an infamous witch, who was burned at the stake in the 17th century, seems to have returned to resume her diabolical ways. She and the rest of local satanic cult — which involves most of the town — need to find a virgin to sacrifice annually, and with Nan’s arrival, they seem to be in luck.
Basically Black Sunday (1960) meets Psycho (1960) by way of the British Isles, I can’t understand why City of the Dead is so under-appreciated. Though this isn’t technically an Amicus production, it’s the first film produced by American expats Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky just before they formed Amicus together, the latter of whom also wrote the story, so I’m counting this as the beginning of my exploration of Amicus’s horror films — despite the fact that it was produced by Vulcan (I name I will steal if I ever start my own production company one day) and distributed by British Lion, who produced a number of more obscure British horror films. Amicus primarily made anthology films, the majority of which were also written by Subotsky, and this is probably their strongest film with a standalone narrative.
Released in the US as Horror Hotel — probably the dumbest title I could think of for this moody, surprisingly doom-laden film — neither of its titles really do justice to this gem. For years, I believed it was actually an American film, because it has a New England setting and the majority of the actors were forced to speak with an American accent, despite the majority of them being English. But it is definitely a British film — though it looks far more similar to one of Val Lewton’s ‘40s horror films than it does like anything produced by Hammer — and features a great cameo from Christopher Lee, his first in a Satanic horror film.
Lee plays the silky, ultimately slimy Alan Driscoll, whose uses his charm to send Nan right into the arms of the satanic citizens of Whitewood. This is a great case of what happens when you just take your passion for research too far and you can be sure that this would happen to me (I have a mania for over-researching things) if I had a professor remotely like Sir Lee. Patricia Jessel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) is particularly memorable as the domineering Elizabeth Selwyn, but the film is packed with menacing side characters, like a paranoid priest (Norman Macowan of X the Unknown), who is apparently the lone participant of local church service. In this way it’s similar to one of my favorite Vincent Price movies, The Haunted Palace, which has a more colorful but similarly eerie sense of small-town atmosphere. The cult members in dark robes are reminiscent of earlier scenes in The Black Cat (1934) and The Leopard Man (1943), and, like those films and Black Sunday, this vision of New England is set bound, allowing for some wonderfully atmospheric moments that pretty accurately represent the stuff of my childhood dreams/nightmares. Either Whitewood is soaked in impenetrable, Mordor-like gloom or all the shots coincidentally take place at night. I’m still upset that downtown Boston in no way resembles Whitewhood.
It’s actually unfair to describe The City of the Dead as a rip off of either Black Sunday or Psycho, as all three films came out in the same year. Both The City of the Dead and Psycho were released in September of 1960, so it’s nearly impossible that Rosenberg and Subotsky, or capable director John Llewellyn Moxey (Circus of Fear, The Night Stalker) had any previous knowledge of Psycho’s similar plot structure, where a female protagonist in a strange town is killed halfway through the film. New protagonists — Nan’s vaguely controlling brother and boyfriend in this case — arrive in town to search for her. Also keep an eye out for the desiccated corpse revealed at the end of the film. Even more so than the sympathetic but obviously immoral Marion Crane’s death in Psycho, the sweet Nan’s murder comes as a total shock, particularly because the film seems benign in a particularly dated sort of way before this. And Bava’s Black Sunday was released in August of 1960 in Italy, so it’s equally unlikely that its opening sequence — where a defiant witch is also burned at the stake by paranoid townsfolk — had any direct influence on The City of the Dead. Perhaps it’s all just a happy coincidence and the horror genre was just bursting with new themes after a decade of relative stagnation.
The City of the Dead obviously comes highly recommended and you should immediately track it down. There are a lot of garbage, bargain basement DVD releases, so keep an eye out for the VCI Entertainment Blu-ray. It deserves to be in a Blu-ray box set of pristinely restored Satanic horror films, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that one. At the least, it’s easy to get caught up in the film’s cinematography from Desmond Dickinson, who was responsible for everything from Hamlet (1948), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), and a number of lesser seen British horror films like Incense for the Damned (1970).