Saturday, July 29, 2017

Horror Hotel: You Might Check In......

College student Nan Barlow needs to complete a paper on the history of witchcraft. Her professor, Alan Driscoll, gives her some advice regarding places where she can go to complete some research. She heads off to the New England town of Whitewood, where a notorious witch named Elizabeth Selwyn was supposedly burned at the stake 250 years ago. She arrives and checks into a local inn, figuring she'll do a little onsite fact-finding. Nan (played by Venetia Stevenson) is warned by Reverend Russell, the local priest (who acts very strangely) not to dig too deep into the town’s past. She ignores his pleas to leave the area, which turns out to be a mistake. Nan ends up getting a very up close and personal look at witchcraft, and learns a lot more than she ever bargained for at the start of her journey. That’s the setup of City of the Dead (US title: Horror Hotel), a memorable 1960 chiller directed by John Llewellynn Moxey. It’s a well-produced British horror film that features genre icon Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings) in a supporting role as Professor Driscoll.

Venetia Stevenson & Christopher Lee
Nan disappears, and her brother Richard, along with her boyfriend Bill, come to Whitewood to find out what's happened to her. The reverend's daughter, Patricia, tries to help them with their investigation. It seems there's a lot of unusual things happening in this quiet little town. But our heroes don’t understand the evil that surrounds them until it's almost too late. As in films such as Curse of the Demon (1957) and Burn Witch Burn (1962), those who are skeptical about the existence of the supernatural soon learn the truth, with horrifying results. What's really going on in this eerie, fog bound place? Can Richard, Bill and Patricia escape the terrifying forces at work in Whitewood? 

Spoiler alert: skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want a major plot point revealed. Some writers and reviewers 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 in an attempt to locate her, and discover some deadly and terrifying secrets. It’s likely a coincidence, as City of the Dead began filming over a month before Psycho did, but the two films do make for an interesting comparison. The movie seems much more like an attempt to capture the feel of Hammer's successful horror output than a copycat of Hitchcock's adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel. In fact, the film was released by producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who went on to form Amicus Productions, one of Hammer's main competitors in the 1960s and 1970s, with movies like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971).

Director Moxey (who also helmed the classic 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker) and his crew give the film an eerie, atmospheric look, despite its modest budget. He gets good performances out of a mostly British cast; Lee, Valentine Dyall (as a sinister denizen of Whitewood) and Patricia Jessel (in a dual role) are particularly effective. City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) is an entertaining chiller with some truly creepy moments, including an opening sequence that is reminiscent of the one in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. The movie is firmly lodged in Creature Features 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. This "hotel" is definitely worth a visit for those looking for some old fashioned fright film fun. The film is available on video from VCI Entertainment. This edition features the British cut of the film, which has a few minutes of footage cut from the US version. Both the Blu-ray and DVD releases have some solid bonus content, including an interview with Lee and a commentary from director Moxey. Here's a link to the film's trailer:

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