An imposing figure standing at 6’5” with an equally imposing resume of over two hundred film roles, it is inevitable that many of the works with which Christopher Lee was involved will be overlooked in favour of those which brought him greater international recognition. The fifty fourth film on his filmography as listed by Wikipedia, The City of the Dead was released in 1960, two years after Lee’s two first appearance as Count Dracula for Hammer, but unlike that character its resurrection is only now taking place.
Remastered and released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films along with the marginally different cut which was released to the American market in 1963 under the title Horror Hotel, it is a compact and atmospheric film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. His feature debut, it was on television he became best known with credits including episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, The Champions, Mission: Impossible and most significantly the television movie The Night Stalker, first assignment of rumpled investigative journalist Carl Kolchak.
With dramatic music and bold titles, the film opens with the downfall of Whitewood in Massachusetts, New England, on March 3rd 1692, as the alleged witch Elizabeth Selwyn is dragged to the stake and burned alive even as she calls to Lucifer to save her and curse the town.
“Burn witch!” they cried, words which are echoed almost three centuries later by Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) to his students, including Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), more serious about her studies than her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) who receives a harsh stare from Driscoll when he quips “I’ll bring the matches.” Interested in witchcraft for her senior history paper she chooses to spend her vacation visiting Whitewood to conduct research, something neither her boyfriend nor her brother can comprehend.
Also a lecturer at the university, Dick Barlow (Dennis Lotis) believes Nan’s determination is driven by Professor Driscoll and seems unable to differentiate between the idea of studying witchcraft from a historical perspective and the belief that it was once seen as a real phenomenon, but as the pragmatic Nan sets off she encounters a series of increasingly strange individuals and events.
First is the man at the gas farm who speaks almost as a harbinger of doom, then the sinister Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) who asks for a lift and guides her to the Raven’s Inn then oddly disappears, then there is the haughty landlady herself, Mrs Newless (Patricia Jessel), aloof and cold to the point of chilling as she attempts to dissuade Nan from staying at her guest house.
As the fog rises thick as smoke and the silent inhabitants watch her but keep their distance, Nan is turned away from the derelict church by the blind Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan), and the only friendly face is the Reverend’s granddaughter Patricia (Betta St John) who runs the antique bookstore, lending her a copy of A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England, but as Nan settles in her room to study it she hears what sounds like chanting from beneath the floorboards…
A new 4K digital restoration, the crisp and flawless black and white cinematography is courtesy of Desmond Dickson, already witness to Horrors of the Black Museum but several years before capturing Kind Hearts and Coronets, the frames lit to throw the blackest shadows in every corner, while Moxey’s sharp editing subverts expectation, Keane vanishing from Nan’s car as her gaze is elsewhere, the sounds of revelry filtering through the door of Nan’s room as she dresses for the party only to step into an empty lobby.
Playing on the scepticism of the outsiders and the fear of those who live in Whitewood, the contrasts are emphasised by the dual scoring of Douglas Gamley’s Gothic orchestrations and vocal intonations and the light jazz of Ken Jones, the incongruous shifts played most obviously in the jump cut between the plunging knife of the sacrifice and the decorated cake in the safety of Dick’s cousin’s birthday celebration.
Set in America but filmed in Britain another incongruity is the American accents adopted by the largely English cast, particularly Christopher Lee, with Hollywood raised Stevenson recalling in her accompanying interview “the only thing I think I brought to the movie really was an American accent – and a certain amount of youth.”
This in fact downplays her contribution, as it was unusual for the time for any horror film to feature multiple prominent female roles which move beyond the strictly decorative, and Stevenson, St John and Jessel are all excellent in parts which are better developed and more interesting than those of their male co-stars, the film passing the Bechdel test long before it was conceived.
A face familiar to audiences of the time from her numerous appearances on Juke Box Jury, the casting of Stevenson and popular singer Lotis was intended to boost the profile of the film, though ironically at the time Stevenson was unaware of Lee’s existing fame in the horror genre, though she recalls “he seemed like a very nice gentleman.”
A well known character actor who had featured in both Whisky Galore and X the Unknown, The City of the Dead was the final credited role for Macowan, while Dyall would go on to play Dudley, unwelcoming groundskeeper of Hill House, and later would take on two iconic roles, Deep Thought of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Black Guardian of Doctor Who, though Jessel’s career was sadly cut short by her sudden death in June 1968 at the age of only 47, just months after she had appeared as the Village psychiatrist in The Prisoner.
“Everyone worked well together… they all did their best,” Moxey recalls of his cast, commenting that as limited as their rehearsal time was it was productive in shaping the final product, though the slightly re-edited version was less to his liking, particularly the name Horror Hotel: “I didn’t like the title but I had no control over it.”
Remarkable with hindsight are parallels with two other famed horrors, both of which The City of the Dead preceded, though one only marginally. “I wasn’t influenced by Psycho because I hadn’t seen it, though I do agree there are some similarities in the way the pictures are put together,” Moxey says, his thoughts echoed by Stevenson. “I remember going to a drive in to see Psycho and being scared to death but not really realising Janet Leigh was Nan Barlow.”
With Barlow brought to the town by her own free will, her fate determined by her own decisions, albeit manipulated by the people of Whitewood in order to conduct a ritual of sacrifice and rebirth, the whole orchestrated by Christopher Lee, while it could not be more different in execution from The Wicker Man and the plan is considerably more direct than that of the inhabitants of Summerisle the parallels are undeniably there, though the film is not without some sophistication.
Much as did with Kolchak, by making the characters initially sceptical and showing them as intelligent and capable in a real-world setting it allows the viewers to become convinced of the supernatural alongside them before the conflagration of the swiftly arriving finale. Wisely keeping the whole under eighty minutes, Moxey was likely aware that the second half very much repeats the first but with diminishing returns.
In addition to three commentaries and the interviews with Moxey and Stevenson there is also an extended wide-ranging archive interview with Christopher Lee in which he demonstrates his astonishing recall and insight into acting and the film industry about which he has no illusions. Rising up through the ranks as he learned his craft he says “They were all small parts, it’s the only way to learn,” and it is apparent he has little faith in those who have skipped that part of their career. “Put you into a leading role and you don’t have the knowledge or the experience, the editor has to do a lot of work.”
Where Lee does speak more warmly is in his praise for the directors and art directors with whom he worked at Hammer – “Beyond belief what they achieved… very happy days” – but with modern effects “drowning the actor,” in his day “we relied on performance,” a sentiment Moxey’s approach echoes, generating atmosphere rather than shock or offering gore.
“When you read a book you make a film in your head, and I think that, once upon a time, people who made horror films… did the same thing, they left some of it for the audience to imagine.” Looking back on his time in The City of the Dead, he says, “It was made with love. It was made with care. I’m proud of it.”