Saturday, October 06, 2007

Our movie for the 6th Day of Halloween is the classic CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) otherwise known here in the colonies as HORROR HOTEL. What would Halloween be without a lot of witches running around. Although, more correctly, these are Satanists complete with hooded robes and sacrificial altar. This is without doubt one of the best horror films of the 1960's (and that's saying something). Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (who would later helm the history-making highest-rated TV movie "The Night Stalker") gives us a classic spookfest from beginning to end. The film also features Christopher Lee as well as creepy, sepulchral-voiced Valentine Dyall and incredibly witchy Patricia Jessel.
The movie opens with witch Elisabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stack as her satanic buddy Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) watches on helplessly. Selwyn naturally curses the entire town of Whitewood (like any good card-carrying Satanist should) and cackles as she goes up in smoke. Fast forward to the 1960 college classroom of Christopher Lee retelling the story. His one student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) wants to write a research paper about witchcraft in New England and her thoughtful professer Christopher Lee suggests his old home town of Whitewood; where Selwyn burning took place. Bad idea.
On the drive in (through fog so thick it practically dents her fender), Nan picks up a hitchhiker -- why, if it isn't ole Valentine Dyall!!! After providing Nan with a cryptic conversation, he vanishes from the car like he was never there. The town of Whitewood Nan finds herself in is shrouded even MORE heavily in thick fog and looks like it oughta be condemned. Strange folk wander VERRRRRRRRRRY SLOWLY through the streets shooting Nan strange looks. The hotel Nan's staying in is suitably called "The Raven's Inn" and is run by a Mrs. Newlys. Are you good at Scrabble??? Then you should already know that Newlys is Selwyn and SHE'S played by good ole Patricia Jessel! Things aren't looking good for are blonde co-ed. In fact, you may be quite surprised at what happens next . . .unless you've seen Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, of course.
The atmosphere in "CITY OF THE DEAD" practically oozes out of your television set. In fact, right now where I am it's actually foggy outside -- and I didn't even plan it this way. All the performances in the film are top notch and lend a lot of weight to the goings-on. One note about Venetia Stevenson -- her real life is almost as unbelievable as her surroundings in "CITY OF THE DEAD". Venetia is the daughter of Robert Stephenson (director of many Disney films from "Mary Poppins" to "Bedknobs and Broomsticks") and Anna Lee (venerable Lila Quartermain on General Hospital and co-star of "Bedlam" and "The Man Who Changed His Mind" both alongside Boris Karloff). But that's not all. Venetia Stephenson was first married to Russ Tamblyn (you know -- "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", "West Side Story", the classic ghost movie "The Haunting" and "Twin Peaks") . . .divorced him, then married Don Everly (of the Everly Brothers). The daughter who resulted from this marriage was Erin Everly -- who would later marry Axl Rose and inspire the Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child of Mine". So, after all this, Venetia Stephenson was Axl Rose's mother-in-law!
So, if you've never seen "CITY OF THE DEAD", you owe it to yourself to catch it. . . because I can't think of anything more Halloweenier!


Cheekies said...

Okay, I have to take opposition on this one. First of all I do agree with you that as far as the atmosphere of the film goes, it is quite creepy. It's not a classic, it's too cliqued to be considered as such. The people in the town just stare and whisper so much to the point that most times I have to stifle my laughter. The imagery is almost enough to make me forget that it does take a lot from psycho ... hmmm blonde girl killed by knife in weird almost abandoned hotel with decomposing body in the bedroom at the end. I can almost hear Norman calling for Mother. As far as the witch story (or as you call them Satanists, we can agree it's a cult nonetheless) that takes place in New England, I'll take Black Sunday any day of the week, twice on well, Sunday. Again, this is obviously done one purpose with the name of the witch not really an anagram but it is pronounced the same if you reverse on of the names. Meaning Selwyn pronounced backwards would be Newless. Also the movie almost makes me feel claustrophobic with the lack of outdoor shots. Even the shots that are supposed to be outside are on a studio set adding to the effect, done on purpose I assume. Lee does a good job with the accent, not so much for some of the other actors, some to the point it almost seems some of the dialogue is dubbed. With all of that said, the movie in all of it's creepiness, as well as the well filmed climax. Now, my quextion is do you consider this to be the "unofficial" first title made by Amicus?

Cerpts said...

You seem to be under the misapprehension that I am choosing the "greatest" horror films when I'm not; I'm choosing movies that evoke the spirit of Halloween in me. I'm sure I'm going to pick some nice stinkers as well; it just so happens I've pretty much stuck to the "quality" films so far. Having said that, "City of the Dead" is pretty much considered a minor classic without any input from me. But whereas you would prefer "Black Sunday" (another minor classic I'd put on the same level as "City of the Dead"), I unfortunately would take "CIty of the Dead" over "Black Sunday"; Bava has some incredibly effective scenes but these are interspersed with dull stretches. "City of the Dead" has no such lulls.

I also don't agree with your comment about cliches; a nearly 50 year old film can't really be considered cliched if the cliches were originated in that film. They became cliches later but you can't hold the earlier film to task for that. I don't have any problem at all with the "whispering and staring" since it all adds to the atmosphere. And please don't say that it makes the movie unrealistic; this is a film where the shadow of a cross bursts people into flames so anyone looking for "realism" in horror films should really go elsewhere. There is also some question as to which film borrowed from which: Psycho or City of the Dead. Both films were made almost simultaneously (and in 2 different countries)so there it's very unlikely that "City of the Dead" copied "Psycho" since it hadn't been released at the time of filming. And Hitchcock, famously locking down the set of Psycho, wasn't going to help them any. The general consensus is that both films appear to have developed separately from one another; but startlingly alike in some respects.

You are quite right about the lack of outdoor shots making you feel claustrophobic; that's exactly what you're supposed to feel. The use of any actual location shooting for the town of Whitewood would've ruined the effect and, as you said, interior sets for outdoors was done on purpose.

The accent of Lee (and others) brings up a very interesting question: Why wasn't the film set in England instead of New England. After all, there's nothing that compels the American setting; and since the film is a British one. . .well, just one of those imponderables, I guess.

As for your question, I do indeed consider this to be an "unofficial" first Amicus horror film. For all intents and purposes, it really is, isn't it? The only thing missing is the corporate Amicus title on the opening credits.

But I must say that you provided an extremely good comment here. It's certainly much better to have your comments than somebody who might complain about "City of the Dead"'s lack of car chases. Well played, doddy!