Horror Hotel/City of the Dead: Film & DVD Review
Tonight, as part of their 7th Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction, the American Cinematheque will screen HORROR HOTEL at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood. This film was known under the somewhat more atmospheric title of CITY OF THE DEAD in its native England (it really should have been called THE THIRTEENTH HOUR, but no one asked me); unfortunately, the Cinematheque seems to be screening the U.S. version, which not only changed the title but also deleted two minutes of footage. Still, any excuse to discuss this excelelnt exercise in atmosphere is good enough for me. It freaked me out when I first saw it as a kid on TV, and subsequent opportunities to enjoy it n the big screen (thanks to previous Cinematheque screenings) have proven that it holds up to adult scrutiny. It may not be a complete masterpiece, but as a cult item it certainly is a gem worth discovering for yourself.
The film — about a New England town ruled by a coven of witches — falls just short of greatness thanks to an excessive reliance on horror movie cliches (e.g., sinister residents of said town staring ominously at the hapless protagonists). Although the lack of subtlety and refinement relegate the film to the ranks of entertaining spook shows (rather than genre classics), the four-star level of weirdness earns HORROR HOTE/CITY OF THE DEAD a place alongside the most memorable horror movies. On top of that, it sports what may be the best, most terrifying (happy) ending ever seen in a genre fear fest – a genuine tour-de-force so powerful in its imagery that it almost single-handedly erases any reservations one has about the rest of the movie.
Borrowing a page from Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY, the story begins with the execution of a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), around the time of the Salem Witch trials. Centuries later, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a college student taking a course in witchcraft by Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). In order to do some research for a term paper, she takes the professor’s advice and visits a Whitewood, the town where Selwyn was executed, and checks into the Raven’s Inn, which is operated by Mrs. Newless (also Jessel). Shortly thereafter, poor Nan finds herself abducted into the catacombs below the hotel, where she is the victim of a ritual sacrifice; among the hooded faces looming over her are Mrs. Newless and Professor Driscoll. Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) grow worried when she fails to return from Whitewood, so they investigate; Bill gets in an auto accident on the way and remains mostly on the sidelines, while Richard talks with Patricia (Betta St. John), the daughter of the aging local Reverend (Norman Macowan), who claims that Whitewood is under a curse: the executed witch Elizabeth Selwyn now presides over a coven that maintains immortality by performing sacrifices when the clock strikes thirteen. The only way to stop them is with the shadow of the cross. Richard is skeptical until Patricia is abducted to be the next sacrifice; he tries to save her, but the cult members restrain him. Bill revives from his stupor as the clock begins to strike midnight. The cult cannot flee without completing the ritual, and Mrs. Newless cannot strike the lethal blow (with a knife) until the thirteenth tolling. Following shouted orders from Richard, Bill uproots a cross from the graveyard and stumbles weakly toward the scene of the intended sacrifice; as the shadow of the cross falls upon the cult members, they burst into flames. Finally, Bill collapses, dead. Patricia and Richard go searching for Mrs. Newless, who got away. They find her in the hotel, her corpse withered and aged as if she had been dead hundreds of years.
As a piece of storytelling, HORROR HOTEL lifts several obvious motifs from Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Most notably, there is the hotel set in an isolated area that is now almost forgotten. The ostensible lead is a young blond woman who is murdered with a knife midway through. And the final revelation of Mrs. Newless in her decomposed state recalls the withered corpse of Norman’s mother in the cellar of the Bates mansion.
Despite the obviously derivative elements, HORROR HOTEL works on its own terms as a sinister piece of supernatural horror. The New England setting, the witchcraft rituals, and the twist with Professor Driscoll being part of the coven — all of these tie in nicely, creating a solid storyline the pulls the viewer along into the movie’s strange world.
And it is strange. HORROR HOTEL is one of those lucky films (“accidental art,” as I like to call it) whose missteps and limitations somehow magically fall into place, creating a weird alternative universe — a sort of Twilight Zone in which the incredible seems completely natural. To begin with, there are no actual exterior location shots anywhere in the movie, which was filmed entirely on studio sets, creating a claustrophobic sense of being cut off from the world at large. The “normal” world of college and homes is depicted only in interiors, mostly brightly lit and cheerful. Whitewood, on the other hand, has numerous “exterior” scenes that were actually filmed inside a sound stage. Filled with fog, this obviously artificial town comes across like something out of a demented dream, the unreality adding to, rather than undermining, the unease in the audience.
The film’s second major lucky break lies in the fact that it is an English production set in New England. The British cast strives with varying degrees of success (Lee best among them) to affect mid-Atlantic accents, and the result is a stilted artificiality that almost makes the film sound dubbed. However, as with the unreal (or surreal) exteriors, the strange vocal inflections only increase the off-balance sense of being set apart from the real world, adding another layer to the perception that we are trapped in a dreamy, imaginary landscape.
Where the film falls short is in knowing when to back off the spook show theatrics. The townsfolk of Whitewood are given to hushed whispers and threatening glances, underlined with lingering tight shots and music meant to instill fear. Not only is this effect so overdone that you are tempted to laugh, there is also a mysterious “Elder” (Fred Johnson), who shows up to hitch a ride with each intended victim, and then inexplicably disappears from the car upon arriving in Whitewood – a piece of hokum that is more amusing that frightening. It’s not bad exactly, but it does seem to scream, “Ooo, scary!” in a manner that recalls SCTV’s Count Floyd.
Whatever the missteps, the film hits its stride during the climax, which is one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed. The black-and-white photography lends the shadowy images an Expressionist power that goes far beyond anything conjured up by the narrative. Nan’s dying boyfriend Bill, ostensibly the hero, resembles a shuffling zombie, seen only in silhouette as he wields the cross like a child using a magnifying lens to focus the rays of the sun into a flash-point that ignites the target in a burst of flame. There is something uncanny in the character’s movements, as if he were a puppet animated by an external supernatural force (rather like the revived sailors in Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”), and cloaking his face adds to the perception that Bill may already be dead, his body nothing more than a vessel for some kind of divine retribution meted out against Elizabeth Selwyn’s cult. Never has the power of a righteous God been portrayed with such unnerving force; even the plagues visited upon Egypt in THE TEN COMMANDEMENTS seem tame by comparison.
The entire film may not work at this exalted level, but it is more than suspenseful enough to hold your attention until the climax. Although his is truly a supporting role, horror star Lee turns in a solid performance, nicely bridging the gap between stern professor and demented cultist without undue histrionics. Despite the awkward accents, the rest of the cast mostly handle their roles well, even if the villains overdo their spooky routine a bit. The slightly hammy approach to horror during the early sequences guarantees that HORROR HOTEL will never achieve the same high critical reputation as, for example, DIABOLIQUES, but like that much-praised French thriller, HORROR HOTEL saves the best for last, serving up a devastating denouement that induces a level of fear few films ever achieve.
Although the names “Selwyn” and “Newless” are not anagrams, they are the phonetic equivalent of palindromes (that is, “Selwyn” pronounced backwards sounds like “Newless”), indicating that that the Mrs. Newless who presides over the hotel is indeed the same person as the witch Elizabeth Selwyn, who was executed centuries ago.
This is the first horror film from the producer team of Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg (although the latter is uncredited). Later, the duo would form Amicus, a film company responsible for numerous horror titles in the 1960s and 1970s, including DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, TORTURE GARDEN, and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.
Director John Llewellyn Moxey later directed 1973’s THE NIGHT STALKER (about a vampire in Las Vegas), which became the most-watched made-for-television movie up to that time.
In one scene, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is seen sacrificing a small bird in his office; he is almost interrupted by the doorbell, forcing the visibly annoyed professor to put on a happy face and receive an unwanted visitor. The scene seems to have inspired a similar one in Ken Russell’s adaptation of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. In the latter film, Amanda Donahoe’s pagan priestess is on the verge of sacrificing a young virgin she has lured to her mansion, when she is interrupted by the doorbell and snarls, “Oh, shit!”
HORROR HOTEL has been released several times on DVD, but the only version currently available is under the title CITY OF THE DEAD. This “Widescreen Undead Collector’s Edition” from VCI offers the original English cut of the film, plus numerous bonus features:
- Audio commentary and interview with star Christopher Lee
- Audio commentary and interview with director John Moxey
- Interview with actress Venetia Stevenson
- Theatrical trailer, photos, and talent bios
The widescreen presentation is clean, clear, and beautiful, especially if you are watching on a 16×9 television. Unfortunately, VCI’s initial pressing of the disc presented problems for regular televisions; it was difficult if not impossible to set the aspect ratio for pan-and-scan or letterbox, so you ended up watching the film squeezed. (Hopefully, the current pressing, which has redesigned cover art [shown below] has fixed this.)
The interview with Christopher Lee is informative, though occasionally marred by the actor’s tendancy to lapse into pompous pronouncements about the state of the British film industry. Lee also trots out his standard complaint about being typecast by the press (who still see him as Dracula over thirty years since he last played th role), but when he gets down to business he actually has a lot to say – about the film and his career in genre pictures. (Most interesting for fans of Lee’s Hammer horror films is his statement that director Terence Fisher ” knew what he want – when he saw it,” meaning that Fisher made the cast rehearse the scene until they showed him something he liked.)
Unfortunately, Lee’s audio commentary suggests that he said everything he had to say during the video interview. Most of his comments consist of describing the action on screen while remarking that he is not quite sure what is happening because he cannot hear the sound. The few bright points occur when he extolls the virtues of the film’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography and when he briefly mocks his own performance for laying on the sinister angle too thick early on. As if aware of the shortcomings, toward the end he asks, “Do you think people are really going to watch this film, listen to the dialogue, and listen to me? […] I imagine you’ll cut a great deal of what I’m saying.”
Director John Moxey’s interview is also worth checking out. Although not a genre specialist (his only other major genre credit is the tele-film THE NIGHT STALKER), he speaks knowledgeably about the techniques necessary to generate mood and suspense. He seems particularly fond of one technique he used to convey a sense of the uncanny: early in the film, a character walks down the street of the haunted city and sees numerous, ominous townspeople; when another character follows the same path later in the film, we see the same townspeople in pretty much the same order, creating a dream-like feeling of repetition.
Actress Venetia Stevenson’s interview is breezy and fun but less informative; because she was on the film for such a short time, she has less to say about it, focusing instead on the rest of her career (which included a switch to working behind the camera). Trivia buffs, however, will delight in learning that Stevenson’s mother, Anna Lee, co-starred with Boris Karloff in the classic 1945 horror film BEDLAM, before going on to play the role of Lyla Quatermain (named after the hero of KING SOLOMON’S MINES) in a long-running afternoon soap opera.
The so-called “Original American Trailer” looks vintage in terms of the footage, but it has video-generated titles that display the film’s English title CITY OF THE DEAD; there is also a 2001 copyright date, suggesting that this version of the trailer was created for the DVD release. It’s one of those trailers that gives away too much (including the final image), and the melodramatic narration lays things on a bit too thick.
The photo gallery is actually a slideshow containing nearly three dozen images: publicity shots, behind-the-scenes photographs, posters, lobby cards, and home video cover art. Unfortunately, the images are not accompanied by a music cue from the film’s soundtrack.
The talent bios, ccntrary to standard DVD form, are not static; the text scrolls up the frame like the opening crawl in STARS WARS; fortunately, you can use you pause button if you want to peruse the filmographies included at the end of each. The information is thin. In the case of Moxey, Lee, and Stevenson, this hardly matters, since we learn details in their video interviews elsewhere on the disc; however, it would have been nice to include something more substantial about Patricia Jessell, Dennis Lotis, and Betta St. John; otherwise, why bother including them at all? The worst example is for Lotis, who played Richard Barlow, the brother of the missing Nan. His bio reads simply:
In THE CITY OF THE DEAD, Dennis Lotis plays Richard Barlow, the concerned brother of the adventurous Nan Barlow, who has gone ‘missing.’
As if you couldn’t have figured that out from watching the movie!
CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL, 1960). Directed by John Moxey. Written by George Baxt, story by Milton Subotsky. Cast: Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Tom Maylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall, Ann Beach.