Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey [Other horror films: Circus of Fear (1966), The House That Would Not Die (1970), A Taste of Evil (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), Home for the Holidays (1972), The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974), No Place to Hide (1981), I, Desire (1982), The Cradle Will Fall (1983)]
You want a movie with some atmosphere? The City of the Dead’s got it, in spades.
Using a Psycho-esque character switch that came as quite a surprise, The City of the Dead had a bit of bang for it’s buck. The plot is interesting enough, what with a young student going to study Satanism by traveling to the small town of Whitewood and taking a room at The Raven’s Inn, only to discover she bit off more than she can chew, but when something happens to our focal character, there’s a time-skip, and more horror ensues.
Of course, the idea of a small New England town being almost entirely dedicated to the dark side of Satanism (because of course, while this movie makes no mention of it, there’s plenty of perfectly good Satanists, more ratio-wise, I would bet, than Christians) was unique, and while I thought that many of the townspeople were being pretty obvious about their ill-intent, I guess that doesn’t bother those who wander into the town.
The cast here is superb. Related, this is a British production, but everyone spoke in American accents, so one might be fooled into thinking this an American-made picture. And speaking of which, while the original title is The City of the Dead, when released in the U.S.A., the title was changed to Horror Hotel (which, in my view, is quite a worse name), so there’s your random fact for the day.
Onto the cast, it’s Christopher Lee who stands out the most as a professor of Satanic studies, and one who takes his research seriously (his argument with a science professor, played by Dennis Lotis, was somewhat interesting). Playing the interested student was Venetia Stevenson, who was quite good, and seemed a lot more self-possessed than many women in the genre at the time. Taking off to the town of Whitewood alone was a nice touch, though it didn’t end as well as she may have hoped. Lotis wasn’t in much else, but he does well here as Stevenson’s concerned brother, as does Tom Naylor, playing her fiancée.
Actually, that brings to mind one thing that rather annoyed me. After a long absence of communication to either her brother or fiancée, Stevenson’s character is presumed missing. Obviously, both men are concerned. And both go up to Whitewood to investigate. But do they share a ride and work together to discover her whereabouts? Of course not. It’s not clear why one or the other didn’t bring up ‘Hey, I’m going to Whitewood, want to tag along,’ but I’m guessing it has to do with foolish ideas of manliness. Either way, the fact that both went up separately just bothered me to no end.
The other two cast-members worth mentioning are Betta St. John and Norman MacOwan. St. John was sort of an interesting individual, as she took the role of the main female character after Stevenson exited stage right, and she worked well with Lotis’ character, all things considered. MacOwan played an elderly priest with no congregation (get better employment, brah, cause you suck at your current job), and he did decent, though the whole ‘Christianity is superior to other valid religions without good reason’ gets really old, not that this is the only movie in the horror genre that makes that antiqued claim. Still, MacOwan was pretty fun.
It’s true that the ending of this one is pretty much the most generic thing about the movie, but it still works out reasonably well, and the fact that the final scenes take place in an old graveyard certainly help with the atmosphere the movie worked so well with (the hotel scenes with Stevenson in the first half were solid enough, and this brings it into overdrive). Overall, I wouldn’t say that The City of the Dead is a perfect movie, but for fans of beautifully-done black-and-white 60’s horror, this one would very likely be well-received.