29 April 2017



I'd never even heard of the existence of this superb horror film until I came across it accidentally while messing about on YouTube a few years ago looking for DRACULA films to watch, but at the time it made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening's viewing.

Now, several years later and after many, many repeat viewings, not only is it one of my favourite Christopher Lee films ever, but it might just be one of my Top Five Horror Movies Of All Time, along with PSYCHO (of which more later), THE WICKER MAN, THE EXORCIST and THE APPOINTMENT starring Edward Woodward, who also makes it into the Top Five by virtue of THE WICKER MAN.

Pretty impressive viewing, huh? By the way, my kids call me THE WICKER MAM because of my love for that particular film, which I think is kind of cool, haha. In other respects, I'm the least cool Mom you could imagine, thereby making me 'lame,' as it were, but my love of old horror movies apparently makes me 'cool', and for that I'm immensely grateful.

Christopher Lee, my favourite actor and all-time Sex Idol(!), plays Alan Driscoll, a college professor who encourages one of his students, the pretty, blonde but incredibly naïve young Nan Barlow, to visit the quaint little town of Whitewood, Massachusetts. The reason? To further her researches into witchcraft, the subject she's studying under Christopher Lee's Professor Driscoll.

(Imagine having Christopher Lee as your teacher! I'd be all, like, Sir, can you help me with my homework? Sir, can I see you for a minute after class? Sir, could I have a lift home in your car? Sir, I think I need a good spanking! Sir, will you marry me and spend the rest of your life with me, Sir? Sir, Sir, Sir...!)

Anyway, despite her brother's and her boyfriend's misgivings, Nan drives off blithely into an adventure that is as dangerous for her as it is exciting for the viewer. Not once does it occur to her that it might not be safe to go delving into the darkest, deepest secrets of a town that's burned more witches in the late 1600s than it's had hot dinners.

Whitewood is miles and miles out-of-the-way, and it's apparently only reachable by asking the old-timer in the area's one gas station for directions, haha. Also, if you're a young, pretty female driver, you've got to take on a passenger for the last few miles of the trip, a creepy old geezer whose party trick involves disappearing into thin air.

The town of Whitewood is amazing. The most fascinating thing about the film is that it was filmed in its entirety in Shepperton Studios in England and not in New England in America at all. The English members of the cast were required to talk with American accents and they're not too bad at it. I'd say it was difficult, however, for Christopher Lee to tone down his magnificently distinctive cut-glass British accent...!

The town is permanently wreathed in knee-high fog and is fabulously atmospheric. You might know that HORROR HOTEL is the name given to the film when it was released in America in 1963, but it might just as easily have been called THE MIST, some thirty years or more before Stephen King's book-to-film adaptation of the same name came on the scene.

Any-hoo, the utterly transparent and guileless Nan checks in at a creepy inn run by the decidedly odd Mrs. Newless, who just so happens to be the reincarnation of Elizabeth Selwyn,
a local witch who was burned at the stake in 1692... Hmmm. You couldn't make this stuff up. Now that's not really a spoiler, as the viewers realise this fact for themselves the minute they see Mrs. Newless early on in the film.

She's a magnificent actress, is Patricia Jessel who plays Mrs. Newless. She's a tall, imposing woman dressed in black and is coolly stern-faced, not unlike Mrs. Danvers from Alfred Hitchcock's film version of Daphne Du Maurier's best-selling book, REBECCA.

Of course, the petite Ms. Barlow has no idea of her grim-faced landlady's real identity, or that Mrs. Newless/Elizabeth Selwyn requires a couple of virgins to be sacrificed to her twice a year in order to retain her immortal status. I think you'll find that that's standard practice in the witching world. It's all in the small print, haha. Always read the small print...!

Nan's surprised in the extreme, then, to find herself in great demand with Mrs. Newless and her crazy coven, one of whom just so happens to be her college professor, Alan Driscoll. Well, well, well. Naughty Christopher Lee. No wonder he was so keen for Nan to go to Whitewood.

Nan's sudden disappearance does not go unnoticed, naturally. Nan's brother Dick Barlow and her boyfriend, Bill Maitland, come looking for her, enlisting the aid of a local woman, Patricia Russell, along the way.

Mrs. Newless and her crazy coven have lined Patricia up to be their next sacrifice, however, as apparently two virgin sacrifices are required a year. Handy, then, that the film has two good-looking women in it, isn't it...? Otherwise they would have been a virgin short, snigger.

What I loved about the film, apart from the ever-present fog, the evil witches and the presence of Christopher Lee- who will be my boyfriend in my next life, if there's any justice- was the comparison with Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, a film that had a profound effect on me when I was growing up.

The funny thing is, however, that THE CITY OF THE DEAD actually was made before PSYCHO, so obviously the film-makers couldn't have been influenced in any way by Alfred Hitchcock's gruesome film.

PSYCHO, of course, changed the face of horror cinema forever and made it more acceptable for grisly murders and sexual deviancy to take centre-stage in films. You'll have great fun spotting the comparisons between the two films when you watch HORROR HOTEL.

The stupendous news is that a beautifully restored version of THE CITY OF THE DEAD is out on special release now from ARROW VIDEO, in conjunction with FETCH PUBLICITY. The special features are so good they actually deserve a few paragraphs all to themselves, so here we go.

In addition to the film THE CITY OF THE DEAD which you guys are probably already familiar with, there's also the alternative US cut of the movie for you to watch. It's called HORROR HOTEL and this version is pretty much the same as the original with just one or two cuts made. If you're like me, however, you'll probably want to watch both versions for comparative purposes, so it's nice to have the choice. And two films for the price of one is terrific value in my book, anyway.

There are some fantastic interviews up for grabs here as well, starting with a forty-five minute chat with Christopher Lee (he'd be in his early eighties here, I'd say) in which he talks at length (again!) about how he never wanted to be typecast as Dracula, haha. 

Well, much as I worship the guy and respect his opinions, I think that people will always remember him best for that Hammer role and it's only because he did it so well, which is obviously a compliment and a tribute to his marvellous acting in the role.

Then there's a lovely interview with the film's director, John Llewellyn Moxey, who tells us that THE CITY OF THE DEAD, his debut feature film, was made with love and care and, trust me, it absolutely shows in every frame.

From the mist that wreaths the rundown, derelict little village in an ethereal fog to the hard-faced villagers that unsettle the newcomers as they watch them through the fog, there's
love of his subject in every shot and limitless care for how it turns out on-screen. Trust me again, you can tell that he genuinely loved what he was doing.

Finally, there's a twenty-minute interiew with Venetia Stevenson (what a lovely name!), who played Nan Barlow in the film. This lady's no bimbo in real life, however, having worked as a computer systems analyst, unlike the ditzy blonde Nan who walked herself right into the biggest trouble of her life all by her lonesome.

Born into a film background, with her father a director himself, Ms. Stevenson talks in absolutely fascinating terms about how the 'contract' system employed by the big studios of the day gave a would-be actress like herself a thorough grounding in everything she might ever need to do as an actress, everything from tap-dancing to archery skills to whatever else.

It's a genuine little gothic curiosity of a film, is THE CITY OF THE DEAD. It's an absolute gem of horror cinema and it's impossible to watch it without having affection for it. Watch it on a dark, foggy evening, if possible, for maximum results.

And don't forget to keep an eye out for witches in your daily life. They're not just for olden times, you know. They're everywhere these days, too. There could be one beside you right now and you wouldn't even know it...


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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