CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)
By the sixties, the face of horror had changed. Technicolor was the norm and bloodletting was in full force, thanks largely to the contributions of the legendary Hammer Studios. Gone was the atmosphere and poetry of the black and white fables created by the mostly German emigres. In was the full fury of blood-gorged corpses and heaving bosoms, led by the more realistic acting styles of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Sepia-toned myths set in crumbling, fog-bound villages had ceased to be.
Or had they?
Two young filmmakers, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, jumped feet first into the horror fray with City of the Dead, an old fashioned tale about witchcraft in New England. For their maiden voyage, they chose a script by George Baxt – screenwriter of Circus of Horrors and Tower of Evil. While produced for only £40,000 (or approx $58,800), it still managed to lure one of Hammer’s biggest stars, Christopher Lee. Rosenberg and Subotsky would go on to form Amicus, Hammer’s biggest rival, although their style tended to be less extreme, while Hammer’s would become increasingly gorier and more graphic.
What they lacked in funds, they made up with atmosphere. Lots of it.
In an era of colorful costume epics and Cinemascope, the crisp black and white photography by Desmond Dickinson stands out. The deep focus and mobile camera is evocative of old Universal masters Arthur Edeson and George Robinson while art director John Blezard compliments Dickinson’s eye for the eerie with his mist-filled menagerie.
Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is enthralled by her witchcraft course teacher, Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee). His tales of ancient witch, Elizabeth Selwyn, have inspired her to write her thesis based on the Massachusetts sorceress. Urged on by Driscoll, she travels to Whitewood, know to be Selwyn’s hometown. Once there, she encounters Mrs. Newless, the proprietor of the local inn. There’s something odd about Newless, but the naive Nan blithely pushes on, exploring the decrepit town.
Discovering a seemingly abandoned church, she’s startled by an old, blind priest who issues dire warnings and pleads with her to leave. Unnerved but undeterred, Nan borrows an ancient book of witchcraft from Patricia (Betta St. John), granddaughter of the priest and manager of the antique store previously run by her late grandmother.
As the evening progresses, dark forces gather in Whitewood, culminating in the disappearance of Nan. Worried by Nan’s absence, her brother Richard and obnoxious boyfriend Bill set out for Whitewood.
Dickinson makes good use of chiaroscuro inside of Newless’ inn and the dark tunnels that run below it. In several scenes, the darkness threatens to engulf her, dragging her into the inky blackness. Her odyssey down the bleak road to Whitewood features the introduction of the angular Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall). His ‘reveal’ is almost magical as he steps forward, engulfed by fog, with an unearthly light framing him in silhouette, giving him the appearance of a satanic priest. The lush lighting continues with the shadows playing on Newless’ face as he plots the protagonists’ doom.
Director John Moxie maximizes his limited sets, trying out as many odd angles as possible, producing a real sense of depth.
Moxey keeps the pace taught and yet takes the time to establish mood and character. Continue to view his work in the ratings record-shattering The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin where they create a fascinating world of jazz parties and old world curses.
While the film is set in New England, Moxie lends a European flavor with his choice of mostly British actors with strong natural performances throughout.
Lee lends his usual dignity and menace to his role as a professor with a dark past and a sinister agenda, delivering a smooth American accent with ease. Stevenson is headstrong and strong-willed yet touched by a fatal flaw of naivete. Her beauty is stunning while creating empathy for her and her plight that is palpable. Tom Naylor as Nan’s boyfriend Bill redeems himself with his last-reel heroics, making up for some adolescent petulance earlier in the film. His character goes through his own arc, growing up during his battle with the forces of darkness.
The villains are what really make this film special. Dyall and Jessel create a tag team of supernatural terror.
As Mrs. Newless, Patricia Jessel is a figure of malevolence and arrogance. Her sneer as our heroes struggle vainly against her evil machinations radiates contempt. Her smug performance here is a masterpiece of controlled ferocity. As she pleads innocence to knowing about any supernatural activity, her eyes look away as if distracted by some trivial task while her sly smile betrays her true thoughts. Emanating a slinky sexuality, she glides through the film on feet of ice.
Her male counterpart, Dyall matches her performance line for malicious line with deep and rich sepulchral tones so that every utterance is heavy with blackness and impending death. Dyall uses his voice to great effect when he gets into Nan’s car and his request for a ride chills you to the bone. An actor seemingly born to act in horror films, Dyall towers over the rest of the cast, a macabre scarecrow in a gentleman’s suit.
Together with their frightened mute servant girl they become a twisted image of the nuclear family.
All in all, City of the Dead is an unjustly neglected gem that deserves rediscovery.
Grab the DVD from VCI to enjoy a beautiful print, with nicely saturated pools of black and a cut that makes good use of the widescreen format. Extras include a 45 minute interview and commentary with Lee, interviews with co-star Stevenson and director Moxey, plus the British version featuring two minutes not found in the American release, renamed Horror Hotel.