FiLM REViEW: City of the Dead, 1960

We watched this (again) tonight, as part of our Halloween half-term horror movie fest. The original English version is poorly named: it’s set in a village, not a city. But it’s a much better title than the US version, which revelled in the name Horror Hotel.

It follows a familiar old horror film theme: witchcraft persisting into the present. Albeit that the present in this case is now a very retro black and white place! The plot is totally ridiculous, naturally.

Nan, beautiful but very dim…
It wouldn’t be horror without boobies!

Nan Barlow, a terrifically beautiful but rather dim student of Prof. Driscoll (Christopher Lee), visits Whitewood, Mass., at the latter’s suggestion, for reasons of academic research, concerning 17th C. witchcraft.

But before this, key characters are introduced at the film’s outset, in scenes of a 17th C. witch burning. The villagers burn Elizabeth Selwyn as a witch. Now, three centuries later, Nan’s visit is the chance for the Whitewood coven to indulge in a spot of virginal blood sacrifice.

Valentine Dyall, aka Jethrow, phantom hitchhiker and witch.
Patricia Jessel is Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless.

These key characters are Mrs Newless, who runs the Raven’s Inn, where Nan is staying, and Jethro Keane. Newless is of course Selwyn, and Jethrow is her lover, who we see invoking Satan to save Elizabeth.

It’s all ludicrous hokum, of course. And the film is also a little weird for the interludes of relatively ‘cool jazz’, as opposed to your typical horror movie spooky music (you get some of that as well).

The 17th C. opening scene…
The phantom hitcher…
It’s always misty in Whitewood.
Hooded figures, more mist, crooked crosses…

These old Hammer-style movies are kind of charming, in a bizarro kitsch kind of way. I quite like them for their antiquated charms. And this is a better than average one, in terms of mood and atmos’.

It’s not particularly scary, more quaint, frankly. Were such films frightening when they came out? I really don’t know. It’s hard to credit that they were. But perhaps for some they were? Nowadays they’re more like a spooky form of panto’.

Nan’s bro’, Dick, and Norman MacOwan as the blind (and bushy-eyebrowed) Reverend Russell.
The dreaded coven!
In search of the life eternal… virgin’s blood, etc.

Nan’s brainless doe-like complacency gives ways to nails on a blackboard screaming when, well… I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this. Her college beau and her brother decide someone ought to go looking for her, when she fails to rendezvous at a swinging party she said she’d be at.

The remainder of the film changes from following Nan to the duo’s investigation of her disappearance. Culminating in a… well, again, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. There’s a blind reverend, a mute housemaid, and lots of general spookiness.

The shadow of the cross…

Silly, but appropriately fun for the nights running up to All Hallows Eve.

This more modern graphic is used on Shudder channel listing.

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