Dir: John Llewelyn Moxey
Cast: Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson
I'm talkin' 'bout John Llewelyn Moxey's foray into the witchtastic
realm of devil worship and the occult. Without a doubt the foggiest
film I have ever seen.
See, when mid-September
nears and Samhain grows closer with the hour, for some reason I feel
drawn toward books/art/music/film that deals with ghosts, monsters, and
most of all...witches. Re: the latter - City of the Dead delivers in spades.
begin with a flashback to the 17th century where one Elizabeth Selwyn
is being tried (read: tied) for witchcraft by the townsfolk of a small
Massachusetts burg (Whitewood). After her burning at the stake, we
jarringly jump cut forward to modern times (well, modern for when the
film was made, 1960) with Chris Lee's Prof. Driscoll lecturing a bunch
of college kids in what looks to be the bird course to end all bird
courses, Historical Witchcraft 101. While most of the jocks in the
class snicker at Driscoll's intensity on the subject, one particularly
keen student, Nan Barlow, takes things a bit more seriously, and,
against the will of her brother, Prof. Richard Barlow, and her beau Bill
Maitland (Tom Naylor doing his best Jimmy Dean impersonation), decides
to visit Whitewood for a bit more of a hands on approach to researching
her paper on witchcraft.
So she goes, checks into the
Raven Inn, whose proprietress, Mrs. Newless, looks uncannily like
Elizabeth Selwyn. Things begin to seem a bit off, and the further Nan
gets into her studies, the more she begins to suspect she may be rooming
among the very witches she came to research. Anyway, Feb. 1st rolls
around, Candlemas eve, and Nan, the pretty young virgin, discovers a
bird with a skewer through it (a starling, I noticed) in her dresser
drawer - a sign that she's pretty much a goner. Soon afterward, she is
spirited away post haste by the witches and sacrificed to some pagan god
- no, it's probably Satan himself; these witches don't play. One of
the witches in attendance at the sacrificial altar is none other than
Prof. Driscoll! So he was a witch all along! I'm thinking that with
post-secondary education enrollment rates dropping, more and more
professors may be turning to black magic to secure tenure. Ba-dum-bing!
(I'm sorry, that was horrible...)
weeks later, her brother and her beau begin to get suspicious that Nan
hasn't returned, so they venture to Whitewood to find out what happened.
Long and short of it is this: they discover that their arrival marks
the second night of the year when the witches must make a sacrifice (the
first was Candlemas eve) - and the witches have their eye on the only
other good person in town, the preacher's granddaughter, Patricia, who
has taken a bit of a shine to the recently arrived Prof. Barlow. Well, a
bird with a skewer through it (I noticed it was a cedar waxwing - what
does it all mean!?!) and a sprig of woodbine on the door means that Pat
has been targeted to be the next sacrificial lamb. Many thrilling close
calls ensue, but it ends with Pat and Barlow escaping, Bill dying (when
Mrs. Newless whips a friggin' dagger across the graveyard and it lodges
in his back - wicked scene - but not before he can carry a cross that
literally shoots tongues of flame at the witches - it's dope), and Mrs.
Newless being outed, finally, (as if it wasn't painfully obvious for the
entire film), as Elizabeth Selwyn. Actually, if the heroes had simply
phonetically reversed "Selwyn", they would have realized that "Newless"
isn't far off....dummies.
absolutely love this film, the amount of fog pumped in is immense. It
really has a creepy, mysterious vibe, but retains a sense of fun
throughout. Beautiful black and white photography, and a loopy,
oboe-heavy jazzy score complete the picture. This is director Moxey's
high watermark - he mostly cranked out workmanlike fare in television
for the rest of his career (everything from Coronation Street to Magnum P.I., and everything in between) - though a close second would have to be the Darren McGavin vehicle The Night Stalker, the first of two TV-movies that were followed by the incredible series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
although Lee is highly touted on the DVD box and in the credits, he
really only plays a small (admittedly important) part in the film. Some
false advertising of the "star" that reminded me of the top-billing of
Brooke Shields in Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion), although she lasts all of five minutes before being killed. A metaphor for her career?
of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel in North America) is quite easy to find
for a couple of bucks as a public domain print on countless "Horror
Classics" collections - I have one of these and the print actually isn't
bad - but I'm such a fan of the film that I recently upgraded to the
more expensive but beautifully presented and extras laden VCI edition. I hear the Roan Archival Group edition is also very worthy. Check it out if you get a chance. Highly recommended for a spooky good time.