Okay, cards on the table: this isn’t going to be a particularly caustic review, because City of the Dead was literally the first horror movie I ever watched. I was twelve years old, I’d been allowed to stay up late watching TV because I had a terrible cough and I couldn’t sleep anyway. It was about 3am and there was rain hammering on the window. I came into the movie to see a priest peering out from a slit of open door, bellowing “No! You shall not pass while this remains a house of god!” Then later some witches burst into flames. It was awesome.
Recently, I rediscovered this film entirely by accident, so I thought it deserved a review…
City of the Dead is a Britain-for-America classic filmed in Shepperton Studios with a wonderful bit-appearance by the awesome Christopher Lee, and some absolutely solid performances from actresses Venitia Stevenson and Betta St. John.
The plot of the movie is about Nan Barlow, a preppy young college student who goes to the town of Whitewood to research into Witchcraft for a paper. Staying with the forbidding Mrs. Newless, she makes friends with bookseller Patricia Russell (daughter of the paranoid, agitated, blind local priest) who loans her a book by which she finds out about the trial and burning of local witch Elizabeth Selwyn.
Thick blankets of fog roll through the town and night, and the nightmarish processions of chanting, robed figures are beautifully eerie as Nan looks on from her guest-house window. Despite being largely (if not, entirely,) studio bound, City of the Dead is still awesome. Every single actor hits their mark perfectly, the pacing and plot of the piece are all perfect and although the ending is a little over the top it’s still a fitting and atmospheric climax to the movie.
On the other hand, perhaps the most interesting thing about City of the Dead is how it handles it’s female characters: modern Hollywood is full of grunting cartoon tough girls but Nan Barlow and Patricia Russell are excellent characters. They aren’t just female characters, they’re convincing as women while being proactive agents who almost entirely drive the plot on their own.
And there are men in the plot, but once more City’s of the Dead’s writing refuses to go down the stereotyped route: while there is a square jawed hero to come in at the end of the whole macabre affair it isn’t Nan’s boyfriend or fiancé, but her brother. Although one of the characters is her boyfriend Bill Maitland, his role is relatively minor (he’s pivotal in the finalée but most of his role is to absorb bullets… possibly knives, I forget.)
All in all a wonderful movie, and nothing I could say would do it justice. The camp parts will make you smile, but the vast majority of the film is fantastic and doesn’t suffer one bit from being almost entirely filmed in a studio. The uncut UK version (which has a much more coherent plot than the slightly mutilated US release, which was entitled Horror Hotel) is available as a part of the Movieology Shockfest 1960-1969 DVD set from Firecake Entertainment.
Jon Kaneko-James is a London-based author, occult historian, tour guide and horror fan. He runs Boo Tours, a ghost walking company which focuses on the darker side of London. Read more of his work and how to take one of his spooky tours here at http://www.bootours.com