Sunday, October 7, 2012

Horror Hotel: You May Check In......

College student Nan Barlow follows her professor’s advice to do some research on the history of witchcraft, and heads to the New England town of Whitewood, where witches were supposedly burned at the stake 250 years ago. She arrives there and checks into a local inn, and figures she'll do a little onsite investigating. Nan is warned by a local priest (who seem a little odd) not to dig too deep into the town’s past. She ignores his warning to leave the area, which turns out to be a mistake. Nan is going to get a much closer look at witchcraft than she bargained for. That’s the main setup of City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), a well done 1960 chiller directed by John Llewellynn Moxey. It’s a scary tale that features Hammer horror icon Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein) in a supporting role.

Venetia Stevenson & Christopher Lee
Nan disappears, and her brother Richard, along with her boyfriend, heads to the Whitewood to find out what happened. Of course, there are fog bound sets, creepy passageways, and an underground room where mysterious things are happening. But our heroes don’t believe in the evil forces that surround them until it's too late. As in Curse of the Demon (1957) & Burn Witch Burn (1962), those who are skeptical about the existence of the supernatural soon learn the truth, with horrifying results. Moxey (who also directed the classic 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker), gives the film an atmospheric, creepy look, despite its modest budget, and gets good performances out of a mostly British cast, who are all trying to affect American accents, with varying degrees of success.

Spoiler alert: skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want a major plot point revealed. Some writers & viewers have compared the film’s structure to Psycho, which came out around the same time. Like that Hitchcock classic, this movie features a heroine (who appears to be the main character) that checks into an inn early in the film and ends up dead. Others follow to investigate her disappearance, and find secrets, terror and murder. It’s likely a coincidence, but it makes for an interesting comparison. The movie feels like an attempt to capture the feel of Hammer's successful horror product of the time. Horror Hotel has more in common with those films than the story of Norman Bates.

City of the Dead is an entertaining B movie with some good scares. This is Chiller Theatre territory (for those of us old enough to remember those days), which is where I first saw (and got spooked by) this spine-tingling tale, under its US title, Horror Hotel. It’s great fun to see Christopher Lee as Nan’s professor, who may know  a lot more than he lets on about witchcraft, and the goings on in Whitewood. City of the Dead is worth a visit for those looking for some old fashioned scares. Make it part of your Halloween film festival this year! The film is available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. This release features the British edition of the film, which has a few minutes of footage cut from the US version. The disc also has some solid bonus content, including an interview with Lee and a commentary from director Moxey. Here's a link to the film's trailer, under its US title, Horror Hotel

Next up: The Halloween fun continues with House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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