“City of the Dead” is no “gore for the sake of gore” movie even though there is no shortage of human and animal blood being spilled in it. Directed by John Lewellyn Moxey, “City of the Dead” has all the elements of what a modern horror movie should be: atmosphere, suspense, something left for the viewer to ask, and a handful of human sacrifices. Released in the United States as “Horror Hotel” this movie stands up so well due not only to the aforementioned, but also for the superior usage of light and shadow throughout the black and white film. Not even the generous use of fog detracts from the story, on the road to Whitewood and the town itself where only a coven of witches resides.
The movie starts out with a woman, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), accused of witchcraft in Whitewood, Massachusetts on March 3, 1692. The somber Puritan townspeople are ready to see Selwyn burned alive for her suspected consorting with a man named Jethrow Keane. Keane denies the consorting and Selwyn condemns those who set her on fire as she is chained to a pole, claiming that she will return to haunt Whitewood and transform their city into one where only the souls of the evil dominate, while the innocent are sacrificed to the devil.
As Selwyn goes up in flames, the scene suddenly cuts to college professor Alan Driscoll (Sir Christopher Lee) who is giving a small group of students a private lecture on witchcraft. The statement of “Burn with burn!” in the previous scene is expounded by him. One of his students stands out in academic performance as well as looks: a pretty blond named Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). Driscoll is very supportive of her desire to do her senior thesis on witchcraft and gives her a recommendation to stay at Raven’s Inn in Whitewood which is not too far from the college, but is a bit off the beaten path. Driscoll’s office is well decorated with all types of voodoo masks and witchcraft paraphernalia that Marie Laveau might have used herself. Driscoll has his own challenges in dealing with Nan’s brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) who is a science teacher and skeptical of anything related to the supernatural. So is her boyfriend Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor). But neither one of them do anything to prevent Nan from going ahead with her research paper, and like all good students who are required to write a thesis, know that primary resources are the best ones when doing an academic project.
Nan leaves home for Whitewood, seeking directions from a small gas station that is forlorn and rarely gets visitors. It makes the viewer think the only job the attendant (James Dyrenforth) has is to give directions to unsuspecting visitors to Whitewood, and to warn them to avoid that location at all costs, as if it has death curse on it, which it does. The road that Nan drives down that leads directly to her destination is covered in fog so that only outlines of the trees and shrubbery is seen. Moving down Wemport Road, she runs into a man wearing a black hat and coat named Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall). He seems friendly enough and appears only to young girls who might be potential sacrifices for the Whitewood witches. Wanting to know what her mission is, Jethrow is please with her answer, showing an enigmatic smile. But by the time Nan reaches the Raven’s Inn, Jethrow disappears from the passenger seat in her car.
Nan enters the hotel, enthusiastic to start her research work on witchcraft but meets a few roadblocks, especially when talking about the subject with the hotel owner, Elizabeth Newless (Jessel). No one except another young girl who happens to be the town reverend’s granddaughter, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John). Patricia works at a bookstore and talks to Nan about the subject, even lending her a book called “A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England.” The book proves to be very useful to Nan as she takes notes in between exploring Whitewood on her own until she comes in contact with the coven that eventually abducts her for sacrificial means. The first night in the hotel she is doing her work in the room as she hears music playing in the lobby, with presumed hotel guests dancing. The dancing is more like a coven dance with the stiff movements of the guests, repeatedly moving around in circles to draw down the power of what was next to come. Newless asks Nan if she cares to join the other guests in dancing, but by the time she changes her clothes and opens her door, discovers everyone is gone, as if they were ghosts. Was that music an illusion too, for it abruptly stops once that door is opened?
Newless tells Nan that most of the guests have gone to services, and she is not referring to the one held at the nearby Congregational church. It is Candlemas Eve, February 2, but what is next to follow has more in common with the mass of Saint Secaire instead of the traditional pagan Imbolc. Once Nan returns to her room she discovers a dead bird there, along with a sprig of woodbine, two ominous symbols that means she is the next virginal sacrifice that night. Opening the trap door in her room she takes a flashlight and investigates, only to be escorted by two hooded figures into a room with a stone slab for a table. Nan is forced onto the table as Newless is poised above her with a dagger, but what Nan makes her scream so loud is the sight of her professor, Alan Driscoll, who is standing to the left of Newless.
The viewer sees a knife come down, but only in the next scene where a birthday cake is being cut. Nan promised to return home in time for her cousin Susan’s (Maxine Holden) birthday but she is nowhere to be found. In fact she did not even manage to remain alive in Whitewood for more than twelve hours. Bill and Richard contact the police who drive to Whitewood, only to hear that Nan checked out of the hotel. Nan checked out the hard way and not on her own will. Richard decides to ask Alan Driscoll if he might know anything about Nan’s disappearance. Driscoll finishes a blood sacrifice in his office at home when Richard shows up on his front door to get any information on Nan and why she has not returned from Whitewood. Driscoll doesn’t exactly come clean but admits he was born and raised in Whitewood. Of course he makes no mention of his connection to the coven there, but Richard remains suspicious of him and especially his reverential attitude towards witchcraft. Once Richard leaves, Patricia shows up, asking Driscoll if he knows where she might find Nan’s family so that can return a locket that Lottie (Ann Beach), the mute hotel servant gave her. Driscoll would have preferred the locket be given to him, but Patricia feels that a close relative better have it. Driscoll gives her the address to Richard Barlow’s house where Nan lived, and Patricia goes there. Maybe she was also once skeptical of witchcraft, but Patricia is now starting to believe that Nan’s disappearance had something to do with the Whitewood coven. Patricia returns to Whitewood, and on her way back, just like Nan Barlow, picks up Jethrow Keane, who mentions to her “Seeing me is a special privilege reserved for a chosen few”, meaning that she was next to be sacrificed on the Sabbath.
Richard and Bill decide to drive separately to Whitewood, with Bill having an accident after seeing a hallucination of Selwyn burning at the stake in the road. Richard checks in at Raven’s Inn and interrogates Newless on the whereabouts of his sister. Newless gives him the same information she did to the police but that does not satisfy him. Richard decides to speak with the Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan) who tells him there is only one way to contend with the coven: to use the shadow of the cross. Once Bill shows up in Whitewood on foot, he helps Richard rescue Patricia from being the next sacrifice.
The use of fog in “City of the Dead” is what makes the movie look spooky, as if the viewer is having a dream and seeing nothing else except figures walking around, wondering who is next to disappear for good. Combine that with the chanting of the witches, the clock striking midnight, and the black hooded figures who have discovered immortality through Satan, the movie has a climactic ending. Sir Christopher Lee is at his very best here, portraying a college professor who has that undeclared connection to witchcraft, much the same way an Egyptologist might give his allegiance to Isis and Osiris. At times in the movie you expect him to grow a pair of fangs and raise his arm to transform into a vampire bat. Venetia Stevenson, the daughter of actress Anna Lee, could not be any sweeter or more innocent looking in any other role given her. Looking like the picture-perfect virginal sacrifice the witches desperately needed, her character had no qualms about entering the dangerous world of devil worship. Patricia Jessel makes Elizabeth Selwyn/Newliss look easy to portray, and Valentine Dyall has a natural talent for portraying sinister characters, using his distinctive voice the devil himself would be proud of.
While Massachusetts may seem the ideal setting for “City of the Dead” (Whitewood remains a fictional town), the movie could have very well taken place in Connecticut, where the first trial and execution in the name of witchcraft took place in North America in 1647 in the city of Windsor. Seeing someone getting burned alive at the stake has a better effect on the motion picture stage, even though hanging was the punishment for witchcraft in New England and England, not burning, which was primarily done on the European continent. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky, “City of the Dead” will remain one of the top horror films for being well directed, its haunting sets, and dialogue that is unforgettable. As Sir Christopher said, “The basis of reality is fairy tales, and the basis of fairy tales is reality”. Do not let this fairy tale (or reality?) haunt your living days.