Monday, October 22, 2012

REVIEW: The City of the Dead

The City of the Dead
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Year 1960
The City of the Dead, AKA Horror Hotel, is a haunting little underrated gem which focuses on the storied myths of New England’s past to tell a new sordid tale filled with cults, conspiracies and witchcraft. Displayed in tension filled style and embraced by black & white cinematography that just oozes with ambience, this twisted story revels in poignant imagery that really sets the mood for the season. With an abundance of atmosphere and a solid cast, The City of the Dead primes the viewer with its unsettling subject matter and its dream-like sets and locations, which really pack a solid horror punch. If you’re looking for a classy horror entry that mirrors the quality that British powerhouse Hammer Films used to produce, then this little known witchcraft entry may be just up your alley.
The film begins in the year 1692 with a witch burning, as the villagers of Whitewood, a small New England town, condemn a local heretic named Elizabeth Selwyn. As she burns at the stake, she curses the town and threatens to return again. Flash forward 300 years later and college student Nan Barlow, at the suggestion of her professor, Alan Driscoll, heads to Whitewood in order to do some research on witchcraft. Once she arrives she finds a fog shrouded village that is anything but inviting. It seems the town is inhabited by a strange group of denizens who in their mysterious nature seem fixated on Nan’s arrival. As her stay becomes more and more bizarre, Nan comes to find that the town is under the control of a coven of witches who are looking to her to be one of two yearly sacrifices that take place during the Witch’s Sabbath. With Nan’s brother Richard Barlow and her boyfriend Bill Maitland setting out to search for her, can they defeat this evil coven of witches or will they succumb to the terror that has plagued the town of Whitewood for the past 300 years?

Venetia Stevenson plays the role of Nan Barlow, the innocent and curious youth who stumbles onto a scenario that she can neither fathom nor predict. Stevenson is a vision and even though she disappears almost halfway through the movie, her performance and initial set up of the creepy world of The City of the Dead is enough to instill in our minds the ambient wonder and dangerous nature of the film. Though I have to admit, her absence in the second half of the movie is quite jarring, leaving me wanting more of her subtle presence. Be that as it may, we are soon introduced to a new vixen. Taking the torch from Venetia Stevenson is Betta St. John, who takes on the role of Patricia Russell the new female lead of the movie. Though not as mesmerizing as Stevenson, St. John does a wonderful job in progressing the story along. Her character actually resides in Whitewood, so her normalcy among such strange surroundings is actually rather intriguing which lends to the overall mystery of the film. When it comes to both actresses, they do a commendable job with the atmosphere of the movie and each one makes a lasting impression on the audience, though in their own special way.
Rounding out the rest of the cast is Dennis Lotis as Richard Barlow, Tom Naylor as Bill Maitland, Patricia Jessel as both Elizabeth Selwyn and Mrs. Newless, and last but not least the legendary Christopher Lee as Alan Driscoll. Though Christopher Lee’s appearance in the film is reduced to an extended cameo, he still makes his fleeting moments shine as he brings enough feeling and credibility to his role to affect the entire production. Out of all the actors above, Patricia Jessel gets the most screen time as she plays the role of the evil witch Elizabeth Selwyn and the character of Mrs. Newless the mysterious innkeeper with a secret past. I liked the maniacal way in which she carried herself and her witchlike features allow her to seamlessly morph into the character without even a hint of burden cast onto the audience in trying to imagine her wicked ways. All in all, the cast of The City of the Dead is a rather solid one.

The atmosphere of the film is also a potent one, relying a great deal on its nightmarish quality and outstanding setting to cast fear into its audience. The town of Whitewood is a picturesque view filled with haunting rustic buildings, fog covered landscapes, and an unsettling stillness that permeates every inch of the production, and the set up to all of this otherworldly style is introduced perfectly by the opening sequence of a witch being put to death. Adding to the ambiance of the picture is a cast of villagers that appear more as ghosts than of real people. There are numerous times when one of our featured cast are traversing through the village only to be quietly gawked at by silent watchers composed of various apparition-like denizens. These unsettling moments are genuinely creepy and aid in the overall tone of the story.
The film also takes a good bit of time to show us the interiors of the buildings from the quaint little bookshop to the rustic and shadow-filled inn. It’s the moments inside the inn that are especially eerie, as it is crammed with dark low lit rooms, secret passageways, and underground tunnels. The structure of the inn leads to some very memorable moments, like when Nan first discovers that the throw rug in her room covers a trap door that opens up to the sadistic cult’s underground chambers. Another visual quality of the film is in the antagonists of the story. Draped in dark hooded cloaks and armed with daggers, this coven of witches are as maleficent as they are stylishly creepy. These devilishly dressed cult followers and their iconic attire give way to an amazingly somber moment in the waning hours of this film, when we are treated to an entertaining showdown between the cult and the last remaining good guys of the film. This is all played out among the silhouetted landscape of a fog covered graveyard and it looks absolutely exquisite. There are some unbelievably beautifully shot scenes in this sequence and the epic conclusion will absolutely rock your socks off in its presentation and execution. This is pure Hammer Horror imagery here!

The City of the Dead is a sadly overlooked horror film that mixes the imagery of Krimi films with the classic presentation of the Hammer Horror greats. Basking in a world of fanciful and frightening sights, this horror entry really knows how to delivery on the visual front. The movie plays out like a cinematic tapestry of gothic infused delights, gifting each return to this eerily created Whitewood with a spine-tingling greeting. The imagery perfectly captures the witchcraft hysteria that ravaged the lands of New England during the Salem Witch Trials, and that tempered atmosphere hangs low in the air.
Saturated with class and knee deep in surreal setting, The City of the Dead is a UK production that gives its all in generating a genuinely creepy tale that features enough twists and turns, and unexpected character demises, to warrant it as one intriguing horror gem. With a more than competent cast and an endless supply of atmosphere on tap, this film is a lost treasure that I always find myself getting lost in. If you’re looking for a good witchcraft yarn and you are in need of a Halloween atmospheric boost, then give John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead a try. The visuals alone pack quite a punch. This film is an…..

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  1. Great review, Jay! It seems we both have a real appreciation for this underrated classic. Rock on!

  2. This film looks freaking amazing...can't believe I havent seen it yet, going to rectify that right away, thanks for the review!

  3. The music in this movie is what got to me. It cast the die for all of the subsequent horror films that would use a choir singing to create that ambiance of devil worship.

  4. The chanting choir music in this film quite literally cast the die for all future horror movies that would use a choir of not-quite-intelligible words to suggest devil worshiping evil.