Wednesday, May 20, 2009

CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)

Over the years, CITY OF THE DEAD has gotten a lot of play under the title HORROR HOTEL. There isn't a city of the dead in CITY OF THE DEAD--it's set in a broken-down little town in some New Englandish Middle-of-Nowhere--and there really isn't a "horror hotel" in it, either, though a peculiar inn plays a prominent role in the proceedings. What the film does have is fog. Not just a little fog. We're talking major clinging, oppressive accumulations of it, swirling through a town on the edge of reality where the sun never seems to shine. It's a town where the dominant ethnic group seems to be ghosts. Not just any ghosts. They're the spirits of witches, pitilessly burned at the stake by fanatical 17th century Puritans. They're hungry ghosts, we soon learn. Exactly what they hunger for forms the substance of CITY OF THE DEAD, a neglected minor masterpiece of atmospheric horror that emerged from the same year that gave us Hitchcock's PSYCHO.

That last is a significant little factoid, because the film employs an unusual narrative gimmick also used in PSYCHO, and there's been some speculation, in the last few years, as to whether one ripped off the other, and if so, who did the ripping. I don't think the question is particularly important. The movies stand on their own merits. Hitchcock is much praised for this gimmick; I think it works a lot better in CITY OF THE DEAD.[*]

And no, I'm not going to say what it is, on the off chance that some poor, unschooled soul reading these words may be unfamiliar with the subject. Watch both movies--you'll be glad you did.

As all that darkness and swirling fog suggests, CITY OF THE DEAD is about atmosphere. Menacing atmosphere. A persistent sense of unease and even dread. Old school horror at its best, and of a breed that's almost a lost art these days. One suspects a part of the reason it's so near to extinction is the falling out of favor of its genre of cinematography. CITY OF THE DEAD is shot in glorious black-and-white, and it's a great example of why the format should be called glorious. This is a film that simply wouldn't work in color. The black and white and all the greys between are integral to the atmosphere it generates. Light and shadow. What is revealed and what is concealed. Register my standard complaint: The loss of appreciation for black and white, these days, is most unfortunate.

The film stars Christopher Lee, in an early role, as a college professor who directs one of his students--studying the history of witchcraft persecution--to this very mysterious town, and the plot deals with the events that follow, but this is definitely a case where the plot isn't as important as the air of foreboding the film invokes.

That air is the emission of director John Llewelyn Moxey, who manages it like a master, and on what we're told was a rather modest budget. Moxey's career hasn't lived up to the promise this effort showed, but he did go on, a decade later, to direct the excellent NIGHT STALKER movie that first introduced television audiences to Darren McGavin's truth-seeking, monster-battling Carl Kolchak, and garnered, in the process, the highest ratings a television broadcast had ever achieved up to that time.

Some other good news about CITY OF THE DEAD is that one can get it just about anywhere, and for cheap. There are probably hundreds of "grey-market" DVD editions floating around, usually under the title HORROR HOTEL, often priced at $1, and, unlike so many such releases, most of them offer prints that are quite good, but I would strongly recommend to both fans of the film and those seeking it out for the first time spending a little extra and getting VCI's "Undead Collector's Edition" disc. It has as good a print of the movie as you'll find anywhere, and it's loaded with great extras. The major goodies are a feature-length commentary by director Moxey, a feature-length commentary by Christopher Lee, and interviews with Moxey, Lee, and star Venetia Stevenson. The Lee interview is particularly good, running nearly an hour and spanning his entire career. Put simply, one couldn't ask for a better DVD presentation of the movie. It's one of those rare discs about which it can be said, without any hyperbole, that "no horror fans' collection can be complete without it."

--j.

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[*] One filmmaker who, some years later, did do some ripping on CITY OF THE DEAD was Italian hack Lucio Fulci, who definitely saw the end of this one before making his own CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (ever the bold plagiarist, Fulci barely even changed the name).

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