Directed by John Llewellyn Moxley
Produced by Max Rosenberg/Milton Subotsky
Screenplay by George Baxt
Story by Milton Subotsky
A beautiful young woman travels to a remote, strange hotel. At this hotel she encounters the hotel owner/manager who is shall we say…odd in behavior and demeanor. The young woman is brutally and horrifically murdered. Her concerned sibling and her boyfriend, alarmed at her disappearance also travel to the remote hotel to retrace the young woman’s steps and find out exactly what happened to her. That odd hotel owner/manager is not much help at all in assisting their efforts and indeed, the more the concerned sibling and boyfriend investigate, the more it seems like the odd hotel owner/manager may be involved in the young woman’s disappearance.
Now I know what you’re thinking; “Derrick, isn’t this a review for a movie called THE CITY OF THE DEAD (HORROR HOTEL in the United States)? The movie you’re describing sounds a whole lot like ‘Psycho’.” Well, no…because the plot I just laid out for you is the plot of THE CITY OF THE DEAD and according to Ben Mankiewicz, the host of Turner Classic Movies, upon it’s American release, THE CITY OF THE DEAD was dismissed as being no more than a cheap rip-off of “Psycho” which truly does the movie a disservice as it is solidly and firmly it’s own movie with its own identity. It’s a tightly made little horror movie without an ounce of fat or padding. In its own way it’s an example of a style of efficient movie making that one doesn’t see anymore. It’s not an expensive production but then again, it doesn’t have to be. It succeeds in creating its own slightly surrealistic, dream-like world and it works because most of the time, that’s all a horror movie has to do.
Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is the star pupil of Professor of History Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Driscoll’s class is currently studying witchcraft and Nan is obsessed with discovering a whole new angle to witchcraft that nobody has thought of before. Driscoll suggests that she does her research in Whitewood, Massachusetts. It’s a town known for how many witches they burned at the stake, including Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel). While the flames consumed her, Elizabeth Selwyn begs Lucifer to save her. Lucifer makes her a deal; sacrifice two maidens in my name on The Witches Sabbath and I’ll grant you and your followers eternal life to curse this town with evil and despair for what they’ve done to you.
Nan’s brother, Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) are both scientists and hard-head realists. They think Nan is wasting her time and that Driscoll is full of bovine excrement. But Nan is sort of hard-headed herself and makes the trip to Whitewood. She takes a room at The Raven’s Inn, run by a Mrs. Newless who has an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Selwyn.
I can hear a lot of you out there screaming “SPOILERS!!!!” But the movie itself doesn’t go out of its way to make any secret of the fact that Mrs. Newless is Elizabeth Selwyn. And this is another way in which the movie has similarities to “Psycho” in that we, as the audience are ahead of the characters. We know already what has happened to Nan and what Mrs. Newless/Elizabeth Selwyn is capable of so there’s real suspense when Nan’s brother and boyfriend follow her to Whitewood because we know what’s waiting for them.
I have fond memories of seeing this movie as a kid on Saturday afternoons on Channel 9 here in Brooklyn, NY. But my recent viewing was seeing for the first time uncut (scenes with characters praying to Satan for aid were edited out) and in HD thanks to Turner Classic Movies so it was as if I were seeing a brand-new movie. And it had me hooked right from the start. It’s only 76 minutes and as a result nobody wastes a minute of their time on screen. And in this age where we have bloated movies with padded scenes that takes two hours and change to tell a relatively simple story it’s refreshing to see a movie that does exactly that: tell a simple story simply with just as much characterization as needed to help move the plot along.
This is a movie that Christopher Lee made before he was Christopher Lee. But Lee is a presence here just as he’s a presence in every movie he appears in. He’s a glowering, menacing foreshadowing of what waits for Nan in Whitewood. And much as Janet Leigh did in “Psycho” Venetia Stevenson makes us like Nan Barlow right away and we quickly become invested in the fate of this young girl and her fate hits just as hard as Janet Leigh’s.
I don’t rightly know where you can find THE CITY OF THE DEAD. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies as during October they show an extraordinary number of seldom seen horror movies and this is one of the best. If you’re a fan of Christopher Lee (and who isn’t?) and horror movies then do yourself a favor and hunt up THE CITY OF THE DEAD (HORROR HOTEL)