In a lot of ways, 1960’s The City of the Dead — released in America with the extra lurid title Horror Hotel, but some extra lurid prayers to Satan snipped out — is a pretty conventional film of its time. It’s inexpensive B-Horror with a plot that goes out of joint with the lightest brush of scrutiny, trading on the peril of young women in bullet bras transgressing their station right into the clutches of evil, before men of reason invoke Christian forces in a blaze of WASP justice. Jesus saves; everyone else roll for damage. And neither of its titles really suit the film they’re sitting on; City of the Dead because, well, the titular Whitewood is a hamlet or a village on its best day, its few stakes of colonial-era soundstage swimming in the waist-high fog like a spoonful of letters in a bowl of alphabet soup, and Horror Hotel seems to promise grindhouse cheap thrills when what you’re really in for is more of a Night Gallery episode. It’s exactly the kind of dated, relatively tame horror that pairs beautifully with movie riffing, and if I may suggest, the Rifftrax version actually has a much better print of the movie than the version you’ll find streaming on Amazon Prime.
All that said, I love it. And why do I love it? Well, it does have Christopher Lee. That never hurts. But really, it’s the ladies. The City of the Dead has two heroines, and while neither of them really get to a Final Girl level of agency, each is a pretty interesting self-possessed intellectual in her own right, however unmoored by the supernatural. And really, I just like them, which you can put down to the quality of their portrayals, but also to the kinds of characters they are, unconventional among heroines of any day, much less their own. It’s an old saw that horror films are morality plays about the evils of sex and the consequences of being unchaste, or even just sexy. That’s not untrue, but I think it’s more true that horror simply arrows to any power that can preoccupy the human imagination. That includes sex, of course, as few things short circuit us so easily, but also the body more generally, and curiosity, faith, family, science, identity. Horror at least begins as an investigation of what can destroy us. That investigation may culminate in a defense of traditions and authorities, either literal or metaphorical, as it does here in a pretty lame deus ex grave marker, but not before we get to see how seductive or functional the power at the center can be. That can be liberating from a certain point of view. You do get a peep of strapless merrywidow in this, but the power that draws our heroines to the lip of damnation isn’t sex appeal. They’re women who want to know things. They’re women who will not be satisfied with what they’re told. They are beautiful nerds. All stuff that once could get a lady committed as sure as it could get her hanged for a witch. And it still could get you doxed.
You could shorthand The City of the Dead as Alfred Hitchcock’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Candyman, with its ambitious historian and studious bookseller heroines, its old New England town shrouded in secret sin, and the shock murder in the middle. It also frequently feels like an episode of Thriller, but more on that later. The history student is Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), as pleasant and as sedulously diffident as she is scholarly, and she proposes to her professor that for her senior paper she wants to go to an old town and scrye for primary sources. Microfiche is not for serious scholars. Her professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), approves warmly and suggests a trip into New England’s most impenetrable fog bank, also the site of the infamous witchburning of Elizabeth Selwyn they’ve covered in class (and the film has helpfully covered in its opening scene.)* He gives her the address of a local inn where his name will grease the wheels for her, and Nan is elated. However, Nan’s boyfriend and brother – not one guy, although they totally could be — one a science student, the other a science professor, scoff at Nan’s plans and, implicitly, at the value of her field of study. It’s all well for Nan to be educated and ambitious, but she shouldn’t be confused that it actually matters. I bristle on Nan’s poor, doomed behalf. To her credit, she has none of it and drives her own damn self to her own damnation.
The film does an interesting sleight of hand here – or it might be lazy scriptwriting – when Nan breaks the news to her brother/boyfriend (Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor) that she’s not going on a planned vacation for the sake of her research trip. Nan and Professor Christopher Lee Driscoll have discussed witchcraft only in historical anthropological terms; that is as a social phenomenon, not a supernatural one. And yet, as Nan’s brother Richard confronts Driscoll, their debate quickly becomes one about whether witchcraft is real. That has nothing to do with Nan’s course of study, and Nan doesn’t speak up for herself. For his part, Richard is a store-brand Cary Grant and Science Professor from a time scientists were still action-heroes, flexing their sense and skepticism like biceps. “Did you ever meet a witch, Driscoll?” Richard demands. Driscoll’s rage flares visibly before he swallows it with a nice, ominous “Perhaps.” Lee does an awful lot of furtive glances and veiled eyes in this movie, which is another thing I love about it. But the exchange moves Nan’s goalposts for the audience without Nan’s involvement; her journey into darkest New England now is less Scully and more Mulder. But either way, she’s determined to go. Not even the last-minute forboding of a gas station attendant on the edge of town will turn her from researching her senior paper. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like a slacker.
Squinting for signs in the fog of pathetic fallacy, Nan stops by a mysterious hitchhiker (Valentine Dyall). The audience will recognize him as a secret Satanist from the witchburning in the film’s opening, Jethrow Keane. Nan shares with him an amiable conversation in which it’s still pretty clear that Jethrow appearing is not a particularly good omen. When she arrives at the Raven’s Inn, he disappears. Undaunted, Nan finds that Professor Driscoll’s name opens the doors of the otherwise-booked establishment to her and thaws its proprietor, Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), considerably. Nan is shown to the last room in the inn. Mrs. Newless considers her new guest alongside Jethrow Keane, and the audience also knows that she is Elizabeth Selwyn, the woman whose murder brought Nan there. Or was it her pact with Satan that brought Nan there?
Nan’s journey to Whitewood gets compared to Marion Crane’s to the Bates Motel in the contemporaneous Psycho (1960), and that’s natural. Blonde women go alone to a hotel in the middle of nowhere and are abruptly murdered halfway into the movie. While development schedules preclude idea theft, and Psycho is unambiguously better, Nan’s nerdiness still distinguishes her for me. Marion is incredibly sympathetic and brilliantly played by Janet Leigh, and Nan’s gentle equanimity and impervious goodness has so much less texture than Marion’s frustration and desperation; your interest could slide right off it. But it doesn’t. Venetia Stevenson makes Nan, in her sensitive curiosity, a winning protagonist. She is the superior exponent of scholarship compared to her pontificating brother. Her thirst for knowledge, though the larger context of the film might condemn it, is true and humble and virtuous. It will take her to unsafe places, but it is still so darn laudable. Horror is full of well-meaning people marching into the jaws of peril despite good reason not to, but maybe more than Marion Crane, Nan is like another doomed virgin in a Christopher Lee movie, Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man (1973), hunting for a conspiracy of witches until she discovers, too late, the witches were hunting her all along.
Before Nan becomes herself a primary source, she passes the heroine baton to Pat Russell (Betta St. John), an antiquities and bookseller who has recently come to Whitewood to care for her grandfather, the town’s raving, blind Christian minister (Norman MacOwan), and dispose of some of her late grandmother’s things. It’s not entirely clear whether the bookstore was her grandmother’s or she opened it subsequently, but that’s just one of many little things rattling in the background of this movie that would bother Columbo. Likewise that Pat’s grandmother, again, the wife of the raving minister, had a witchcraft collection gathering dust in a town where her husband is locked in eternal stink-eye with the majority of the town’s citizens. But this collection has a book Nan needs, and thus when Nan goes missing, there’s someone nearby to notice. This is the part of the movie that most closely resembles Psycho to me, with Pat in Lila Crane’s place as a woman who won’t accept bland explanations for Nan’s disappearance. She tracks the matter all the way to Professor Driscoll, and then, inevitably to Nan’s brother and boyfriend. Once the boys get involved, it gets more conventional and sloppier, with each tracking the coven down separately just as the witches get their dead birds and sprigs of woodbine all set for Pat. The ending is pretty silly, too, although, again, it does make for good movie riffing.
An early collaboration of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, The City of the Dead can be considered the first Amicus Production. Amicus fielded over a decade of great portmanteau horror films starring genre favorites like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on their off days from Hammer in winning titles like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Asylum (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974). While they made more traditional horror movies, too – my favorite was turned into an episode of MST3K, 1966’s The Deadly Bees – Amicus films tended to be stuff easily mistaken for a TV show. You can see that small screen friendliness in The City of the Dead. Indeed, the script was originally written for a Boris Karloff TV project. That intimacy serves it well though, fostering a claustrophobic sense of inbred insidiousness in rural Massachusetts that Hawthorne or Lovecraft would have loved. I would have even cut the cast down further, or at least used the higher body count for, you know, a higher bodycount. As presented, Nan’s brother and boyfriend don’t really need to be separate characters. I’m not sure they need to be in this at all, except to reassert some nice WASPy patriarchy at the end, but then, I would probably have written Nan into a heavily-coded relationship with Pat and had them driving away from Whitewood into a happy ending and Nan’s graduate work in The Duke of Burgundy’s valley of the lesbian lepidopterists.
* Witches in New England were not burned. Witches in New England were hanged or pressed to death. Witches in Europe were burned. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Angela watched this movie twice before she realized Christopher Lee was doing an American accent.