Known in the U.S. as HORROR HOTEL, THE CITY OF THE DEAD is known as the first effort by what would become Amicus Productions and it was scripted by George Baxt, the writer of such genre milestones as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (known stateside as BURN, WITCH, BURN) and CIRCUS OF HORRORS. In addition to this Baxt composed the story upon which VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972) was based and was an uncredited co-author of the screenplay for Hammer Films 1958 masterpiece, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. A work of dark menace, this film has long been regarded as one of the best essays into witchcraft and demonology with more than a nod to H. P. Lovecraft as the village of Whitewood could easily have come from the master's pen. THE CITY OF THE DEAD now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of VCI Entertainment.
The story begins with the Latin incantations of a Black Mass against the credit backdrop. Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM), a cold figure of evil, is bound to a stake and condemned to death. On the third day of March, 1692, zealous Puritans who cheer her untimely demise are cursed as Lucifer intervenes with a thunderstorm. Selwyn goes to her death with the knowledge that she will return to make the village of Whitewood the Devil's own. Cut to the modern day (circa 1960) and Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee, SCARS OF DRACULA), is a no-nonsense instructor lecturing a course on witchcraft at a New England college. His sharp eye for beauty focuses upon student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson, DAY OF THE OUTLAW) who is determined to carry her studies to a more serious level. Determination and tenacity carry her to go the ultimate mile and – she decides to venture to the very town the aforementioned crime was committed on the suggestion of her professor.
With little more than her own naiveté in check, she motors off to Whitewood. Locals in the surrounding area regard her requests for directions as sheer madness (one can't help but recall the reaction of the peasants in Transylvania when Castle Dracula is brought up). She picks up a hitchhiker along the way who is uncannily aware of the history of the surrounding area. He is Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall, the voice of Mike Raven in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), a cohort of Elizabeth Selwyn whom we see in the prologue secretly praying to Satan to save her. As they enter the fogbound township, he mysteriously disappears in front of the Raven's Inn. Inside she encounters Mrs. Newlis (Jessel) who is reluctant to give her a room until the girl mentions the name of Professor Driscoll. She is given one right off the lobby and prepares for her first night. Shortly after, she hears music and is informed by Mrs. Newlis that there is dancing and she is welcomed to join in. She agrees after finishing her notes on the book of Satanism in New England she has borrowed from the Reverend's (Norman Macowan, X THE UNKNOWN) daughter, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD). Mysteriously as she enters the lobby, the spectral guests have disappeared and Mrs. Newlis informs her that they are at services for Candlemas Eve. Nan reluctantly says goodnight and returns to her room whereupon she discovers a dead bird impaled with a long pin and a sprig of woodbine signifying that she is marked for sacrifice. At this point Mrs. Newlis is nowhere to be found and chanting is getting louder underneath the cellar door of Nan’s room, where she ventures off and disappears in the hands of a hooded coven of witches. As Patricia is suspicious of Nan suddenly missing (she never returned the book she borrowed), she visits Nan’s brother (Dennis Lotis, SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST) and boyfriend (Tom Naylor, ROCK YOU SINNERS), both who trek into Whitewood to play hero, and from here on, tension and anxiety are orchestrated to a feverish conclusion.
The late Christopher Lee once referred to THE CITY OF THE DEAD as "American gothic." Fresh on the heels of his successes with DRACULA (1958), THE MUMMY (1959) and HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959), Lee's performance as Professor Driscoll is one of his finest moments, even if he is not the central character (nor was he top billed). He looks terrific in the satanic cowl and robe, hovering over altars, and is equally good as the college instructor in the Black Arts. Out of all the British cast members attempting to maintain an American accent, he arguably pulls his off the best (though all the thesps pull it off rather convincingly). Jessel gives a bravura performance that eclipses Lee's and even the sepulchral Dyall's devil's disciple (somewhat similar to his later role in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING), easily steals the film. The superb lensing by Desmond Dickinson (HAMLET) is rich with artful camera angles and otherworldly compositions. The black and white cinematography is eerily lit and the production design/art direction by John Blezard is appropriately sinister. Blezard's other art direction credits include HANDS OF ORLAC (1961) and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964). This was the first feature by John Llewellyn Moxey, and with the help (or rather overuse) of fog machines, he creates a terrific sense of doom, ala Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (released the same year). Moxey would work steadily on television in the ensuing years (in both the U.K. and the U.S.), though he would still do an occasional feature (the underrated CIRCUS OF FEAR) and one of the best genre telefilms of all time, THE NIGHT STALKER (1972).
Credited to the company called Vulcan, CITY OF THE DEAD is also known as the movie which launched Amicus Films, who would be second only to Hammer as England’s horror movie making machine in the 1960s and 1970s. The executive producer was Milton Subotsky (who also conceived the story) and his future Amicus partner Max J. Rosenberg was an uncredited producer, and the music was by Douglas Gamley, who would go onto score a number of their productions (ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, etc.). Christopher Lee would also long be associated with Amicus, adding star power to a number of their features (DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR, THE SKULL, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and I, MONSTER). As far as CITY OF THE DEAD, it seems to be one of the genre efforts that Lee was most enthusiastic about appearing in. In The Films of Christopher Lee by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart, Lee is quoted as saying, “It really was a very good picture in many ways, insofar as it did combine ancient superstition and ritual with modern American university life. It had very much the witch-haunted flavor of Lovecraft’s stories. I think my greatest achievement was my American accent. It is a very difficult thing for a British actor to do. They usually exaggerate it beyond belief, and vice versa.”
With the film being in the public domain in the United States (under HORROR HOTEL), there of course have been numerous DVD releases over the years from various companies. VCI Entertainment released the longer U.K. version on DVD back in 2001, separating it from the rest of the pack by using the original title. The real treat for U.S. devotees of this film was to finally see it with its original British titles and over two minutes of restored footage that gives Patricia Jessel's character a chance to curse not only the village but its descendants as she is put to death. The prologue is much richer, for the restoration of these lines makes the initial cut to Christopher Lee’s character more dramatic.
The longer British version is once again brought to us by VCI, this time as a brand new HD presentation on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer delivers the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio with excellent detail throughout. Contrast and grayscale levels are generally good, if a tad too bright in spots, and black levels, though properly solid, tend to display artifacting and other video noise. Grain is minimal in favor of some apparent digital noise reduction, but thankfully the image is not too waxy. The film elements used for the transfer are in impeccable shape, so any fleeting cases of dirt and debris only help to give it more character. The English LPCM 2.0 audio track is quite good; dialogue is crisp and the music score has the right amount of haunting atmosphere. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Included is an archival interview with Christopher Lee (45:09) as he sits down to discuss Orson Welles, John Boles, Terence Fisher, etc. Lee, who passed away at age 93 in 2015, lived long enough to see his career lionized by film fans and he enjoyed an international reputation as a top-flight character actor. The drawback to all this is that there are so many ways to tell an anecdote and there is nothing in these 45 minutes that has not been covered before. Having said that, one must be grateful that the legendary actor was around long enough to share so much on record. This is decidedly a better interview than the very nervous one Lee did for the previous Troma DVD presentation of HORROR HOTEL. An “Exclusive Behind the Scenes Interview with Christopher Lee” (16:37) is video footage of Lee signing autographs and talking to fans/staff while the cameras are rolling, and this footage was taken when CITY OF THE DEAD was first being released to DVD back in 2001.
Carried over from the 2001 DVD is an interview with Venetia Stevenson (19:31), who talks about coming from Hollywood to Shepperton Studios to make her first movie, recalling how she had to scream at the top of her lungs on the fogbound set. At one point she admits that she didn't know who Christopher Lee was until the film had been released in the States and one of her actor friends told her he was the British equivalent to Vincent Price! Also carried over from the DVD is the interview with director John Moxey (26:23) who openly admires horror films and believes in the use of fluid camera movements and mentions the use of elements (fire, water, fog, etc.) in his work. Here, he recalls having a great time making the film and comes off as very charming in his comments (and, ironically, he never saw a Hammer film before making it). He notes that his favorite character in CITY OF THE DEAD was the blind priest, Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan). At the time of the interview, Moxey was still enjoying a renaissance of appreciation from this film and the hugely popular THE NIGHT STALKER.
There’s a new audio commentary by author, British horror film expert and frequent Little Shop of Horrors contributor Bruce G. Hallenbeck. This is his first ever commentary, as he shares information (some scene-specific) about the film, its style and technique, and its players, and he gives his views and opinions on what is one is one his favorite British horror films (Hallenbeck even tried to get a remake off the ground in the 1990s, but it never came to be). There are some stretches of silence (it’s not easy to talk about a movie by yourself for its entire running time), but Hallenbeck has an elegant talking style, much like his writing, so hopefully he’ll be doing more commentaries (or moderating them) for other future British horror Blu-rays of this ilk.
The two commentaries from the 2001 DVD have been carried over here, one with Lee (moderated by Jay Slater) and the other with director Moxey, who is on his track solo. Lee's encyclopedic mastery of not only his own body of work but his rich understanding of European culture is without peer. He notes the believability of the well-conceived script which he found typical of Lovecraft – an author with whom he is well acquainted – and that it had some points of similarity with Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW, which he had just done at the time of this recording. His running remarks and observations are, in a word, insightful. He adds many little gossipy bits about the parties involved which lend this conversation great humor and spirit. Moxey adds numerous details on the technical end of things, and found Lee and Jessel great fun to work with. This was his first feature film and he considered himself fortunate to find so many interesting faces and fascinating actors to work with. Moxey worked a bit on the dialogue but found it so good that he didn't alter much of it.
The shorter American cut of the film is also presented here in standard definition, but since it’s riddled with problematic interlacing and picture softness, it’s good for reference purposes only and nothing else (you likely already own a DVD version of HORROR HOTEL which looks far better). Rounding out the extras are digital liner notes by Mike Kenny, an original theatrical trailer (though altered to reflect the British title and VCI’s copyright), and a photo gallery of DVD covers, posters, lobby cards and production stills. (George R. Reis and Christopher Dietrich)
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