The City Of The Dead (1960 UK)

cl1960 was a bumper year for horror cinema – “Psycho” “Black Sunday” “Peeping Tom” & “The House of Usher” etc. This very low budget release is the sort of thing just meant for midnight viewing. “The City of the Dead” has a title that is a little of a misnomer, as we’re dealing here with a small town – a village, really – rather than a city. Alternative title “Horror Hotel” may be more apropos. This setting is a back of beyond kind of place, existing in an absolutely fog – drenched dimension of its own. Time seems to stand still here, or it goes backwards.

The strange people living there are part of the local legacy; almost 300 years ago, a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake, and before expiring – yup, you’ve guessed it – she placed a curse on the village. In modern times, a student, Nan Barlow (beautiful and likable Venetia Stevenson) studying witchcraft is given the name of the village – Whitewood – by her college professor, Alan Driscoll (Sir Christopher Lee), for the purpose of research, and she and all those who visit find eerie happenings in store for them. This was the initial film project for Amicus, who would go on to be the principal rival for Hammer in the 60’s, and become known for their anthologies. (At this time, however, they were known as Vulcan.)

This is delightfully spooky and atmospheric stuff, with danger lurking around just about every corner. It gets off to a great start, and keeps adding on the tension until its fiery ending. The memorable plot twist at about the half way point adds an element of unpredictability. The sets are just incredible, from the exteriors to the interiors, and the music by Douglas Gamley is great horror film stuff. It’s good fun to see Sir Christopher playing an American, and the other actors prove engaging to watch: singer Dennis Lotis plays Nan’s brother Richard, a colleague of Driscoll’s, and Tom Naylor plays Bill Naitland, her boyfriend. These two become the heroes of the story. Patricia Jessel is great as hotel proprietor Mrs. Newless. The appealing Betta St. John and Ann Beach play Patricia and Lottie, respectively.

Valentine Dyall and Norman Macowan add indelible support and provide some interesting character faces. The story is an engrossing, straightforward one; even the UK cut, which adds over two minutes of material, runs a mere 78 minutes. This ensures that the story gets quickly to the point and never gets boring. The efficient direction is by John (Llewellyn) Moxey, who also directed Lee in “Circus of Fear” and has had an amazingly prolific career in TV. Whitewood is the epitome of creepy with its old dilapidated buildings, choking fog, a handful of very suspicious townspeople with drawn faces, and a graveyard of condemned witches on the town green. The Raven’s Inn is what you may find today as a bed and breakfast in Old Salem, complete with period fireplaces and shadows.

city of the dead

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