The City of the Dead

A much-loved Christopher Lee cult film from 1960, also known as Horror Hotel (the retitle for the slightly edited American cut), The City of the Dead is now available on Blu-ray in gorgeous high definition, a 4K restoration from the original negative. While not quite a classic, this is still an atmospheric effort that makes the most of its smoky Shepperton soundstage sets and almost expressionistic acting. British-made but New England-set, the fake accents ramp up the archness across the board, but if you are willing to accept the staginess you’ll have a lot of fun.

After a nicely barking opening which sees 17th century witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) burned at the stake, cursing a town as she goes, we cut to the present day where way-too-passionate lecturer Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is giving a seminar about Selwyn. ‘Burn witch, burn burn burn!’ Driscoll yells. ‘Dig that crazy beat!’ says Maitland (Tom Naylor), a cocky undergrad who looks about 35.

Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson, an actual American), Maitland’s girlfriend, is looking to do some primary research and Driscoll suggests Whitewood, the town where we saw Elizabeth Selwyn getting roasted. Nan immediately jumps at the chance of finding out something new and exciting to beef up her term paper, and tells her brother Dick (Dennis Lotis) that she won’t be joining him at Cousin Sue’s for their vacation.

Once she gets to Whitewood, off the beaten track and smothered in fog, Nan gets a spooky welcome from Jethrow Keane, played by the impeccably creepy Valentine Dyall. She then meets spooky landlady Mrs Newless (Patricia Jessel…hmmmmmm), mute servant Lottie (Ann Beach) and a blind priest who warns her away (Norman Macowan). The priest’s granddaughter, Pat (Betta St. John), is much friendlier, and lends her a book on witchcraft.

Things start getting really spooky and the film manages a pretty unexpected rug tug, going for a bit of a Psycho vibe in changing lead characters. It all ends in a fiery mess, the classic ‘evil is beaten by the power of Christ’ schtick, but there are a couple of really decent little moments of horror (poor Lottie!). It’s all over in 74 minutes, too, making it the perfect Sunday afternoon shocker.

The City of the Dead is available on Blu-ray and DVD now from Arrow Films.

With thanks to Fetch Publicity.

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