City of the Dead (1960)
aka: Horror Hotel (US)
Directed by John Moxey
Produced by Seymour S. Dorner, Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky, Donald Taylor
Screenplay by George Baxt
Story by Milton Subotsky
Betta St. John
Although this film is listed under Vulcan Productions, it was the first film in which Subotsky and Rosenberg worked together and is often considered the first Amicus Film.
The storyline is a bit choppy but not hard to follow. At the behest of her college professor, Driscoll, (Christopher Lee), Nan Barlow, agrees to do an extra assignment to boost her grade. Nan takes a road trip to Whitewood, a town with a history of witchcraft. When she gets there she finds the town barely changed in the past two hundred years. She arrives at night to eerie surroundings. The townsfolk are unfriendly and odd. A continuous fog and mist further cloaks the town in mystery. There’s some strange weirdness that adds to the creepy mood, like the hitchhiker ghost. There’s townsfolk that are often standing in the streets, shadowed in darkness, and /or standing completely still.
Iconic visuals such as the gathering of the coven and the back story sequence where they burn the witch Elizabeth Sewyn, further propel my enjoyment of this film. The horrifying sequence when they drag Nan into the depths of a hidden dungeon to sacrifice her at the 13th hour is a bold horror presentation for 1960. And only a half hour into the film our delightful main character, Nan (Venetia Stevenson), is sacrificed in ceremony. After some conflict with Professor Driscoll, Nan’s brother, Richard, and boyfriend, Bill, head to Whitewood to find her. They are joined by Patricia, a Whitewood native who‘s father was a pastor in the town. Because of this format in story telling, (MC missing, loved ones go to find her) CotD is often compared to Psycho. But the similarity stops at that one point because to me they are completely different types of films.
What really makes this film stand out is the wonderful mood and atmosphere portrayed by the stark black & white contrast and fantastic cinematography. When I’m in the right mood, some of the scenes can still creep me out. It succeeds where other films of the same ilk have not with me, such as The Wickerman, The Devil’s Reign, and The Blood On Satan’s Claw. It is films like this that endear me to the b&w image and artistry of yesteryear. I really feel this is an underrated horror film and one of the best witch/satanic themed films ever made.
Amicus Films Overview – a master list of Amicus films reviewed at Parlor of Horror.