Film Review: City of the Dead (1961)

SYNOPSIS:

Young college coed Nan Barlow at the advice of her professor Alan Driscoll travels to the small New England village of Whitewood to finish her final paper on the subject of witchcraft. Witchcraft is far from a fairy tale in the small New England town however, and soon Nan is going to find out what evil does indeed lurk in the foggy streets of Whitewood.

REVIEW:

Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxley
Starring: Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson

“The basis of fairy tale is in reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.”

The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) is a great little gem of classic black and white horror. The film begs to be watched on cold fall evenings with only candles to illuminate the room, had the film been in color instead of black and white I do not believe the atmosphere would have been the same.

The City of the Dead starts with a group of villagers going up to a door; the villagers are angry and are demanding Elizabeth Selwyn as she has been convicted of witchcraft. The villagers already have a stake and kindling around it so it is only a matter of seconds before Elizabeth is bound to the stake and set ablaze. As the fire begins to grow around her she begins to curse the town that has convicted her, the town of Whitewood. She screams out the curse as the sky darkens, obviously her dark lord is listening. The angry crowd starts to chant “Burn! Witch! Burn! Burn!” when suddenly the angry crowd’s voice changes to one all genre fans should recognize and soon he graces the screen, that’s right a young Christopher Lee! The film plays a trick making the viewer think that they are about to watch a period piece, but here we are in the present suddenly (well the 1960’s).

Professor Alan Driscoll is lecturing his quite small class about the witch trials that occurred in 17th century New England. Only one student in the class however seems to be listening and that is a beautiful coed named Nan. Nan’s boyfriend Bill however seems more interested in cracking jokes; he doesn’t believe any of the things coming out of Prof. Driscoll’s mouth. As the class ends Prof. Driscoll says that in the next lecture he will bring some pictures for the students to look at, Bill says that he will bring the matches. As the students leave the class room Nan tells Bill to wait for her outside as she goes to talk to Prof. Driscoll about her final paper due for the class. Prof. Driscoll points out that Nan is obviously interested in the subject, and that her work is quite good, he suggest that over her break she go to the New England town of Whitewood, the same place from the flashback during the beginning sequence; it is there that the young coed can find information she wont find anywhere else for the paper.

Bill stands in the hallway attempting to listen at the door as he lights a cigarette (yes this was the 60’s they could smoke inside still), Richard, Nan’s brother arrives in order to give her a ride and Bill informs him that she’s still talking to the professor. Richard walks in and of course shares his angry words with Prof. Driscoll, Richard is a science major and he finds the professor to be nothing but a grown man telling fairy tales. After their argument Nan informs Richard that instead of going to their cousin’s birthday party she is going to go to Whitewood to study for her final paper. Richard of course is angered but Nan’s mind is made up, and she assures both Richard and Bill that she will meet them both at the cousin’s birthday party and that they have nothing to worry about.

One gets the impression while watching The City of the Dead that the streets of New England are drenched in fog. This is where I’m going to point out that the sets of this film are beautifully done. There is a knee deep layer of fog in Whitewood and the surrounding area, anyone who has ever caught themselves driving in such a dense fog knows what kind of fear and paranoia that it can cause.

Nan stops at a gas station to ask for directions, she is sure she has lost her way. The gas station attendant tells her where to go but tries to talk her out of going into Whitewood. Nan isn’t bothered by the attendant’s tales and continues on the directions she was given. As she drives through the dense fog she comes to the fork in the road that the attendant told her about. In the fog by the sign there stands a silhouette of a man all in black, she asks the man if she is going the right way, he tells her that she is and then asks for a ride. In standard horror film stupidity Nan lets the stranger into her car; they talk briefly until they pull up to the Ravens Inn (the only inn in the fog drenched village). Nan continues to carry on conversation when suddenly she turns and the stranger is now vanished into thin air.

The village of Whitewood however is far from a quaint friendly New England town Nan discovers. She is only there for a few hours when she starts to hear strange chanting sounds coming from her floor, the inn keep just assures her that the cellar was filled in to cement the foundation and that there is nothing underneath. When she goes to visit that one and only church in the village she is greeted by an angry blind preacher who only tells her that she shouldn’t stay in Whitewood any longer. All of the citizens of Whitewood are hardly hospitable either; they simply stop and stare whenever Nan walks by them. Nan however does find one friend though when she visits an antique store and meets Patricia Russell. Patricia allows Nan to borrow one of her rare and more valuable books on witchcraft, Nan is thankful and takes the book back to her room at the Raven’s Inn to study some more for her paper. Maybe Nan should have read that book a little closer cause she would know that tonight is Candle mass, when the witches commonly celebrate their black mass rituals. Maybe Nan would have figured out that when something of hers comes up missing and a dead bird and a sprig of woodbine is left on her door it means the witches are after her, wait she did read that part she just decided not to leave……

The City of the Dead is a fantastic journey back to the days when low budget horror meant more than just sprayed red karo syrup on the screen. The film just drips with atmosphere and like I said earlier the streets are just covered in a thick layer of fog. The cast is great Venetia Stephenson who plays Nan is a beautiful woman, still today. Christopher Lee though he is billed as a star is hardly the star of the picture, however whenever he is on screen he is on like Christopher Lee can only be. Patricia Jessel also is great playing dual roles.

This is the kind of film I would let nongenre fans borrow around the month of October, it just begs to be shown around Halloween time. I am glad to have this lost gem in my collection, and those who have an appreciation for the classics should find themselves a copy for their library as well.

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One Response to Film Review: City of the Dead (1961)

  1. Mr. Naylor says:

    Glad you finally found this film… Now sit back and enjoy.

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