I'm talkin' 'bout John Llewelyn Moxey's foray into the witchtastic realm of devil worship and the occult. Without a doubt the foggiest film I have ever seen.
See, when the end of October nears and Samhain grows closer with the hour, for some reason I feel drawn toward books/art/music/film that deals with ghosts, monsters, and most of all...witches. Re: the latter - City of the Dead delivers in spades.
We begin with a flashback to the 17th century where one Elizabeth Selwyn is being tried (read: tied) for witchcraft by the townsfolk of a small Massachusetts burg (Whitewood). After her burning at the stake, we jarringly jump cut forward to modern times (well, modern for when the film was made, 1960) with Chris Lee's Prof. Driscoll lecturing a bunch of college kids in what looks to be the bird course to end all bird courses, Historical Witchcraft 101. While most of the jocks in the class snicker at Driscoll's intensity on the subject, one particularly keen student, Nan Barlow, takes things a bit more seriously, and, against the will of her brother, Prof. Richard Barlow, and her beau Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor doing his best Jimmy Dean impersonation), decides to visit Whitewood for a bit more of a hands on approach to researching her paper on witchcraft.
So she goes, checks into the Raven Inn, whose proprietress, Mrs. Newless, looks uncannily like Elizabeth Selwyn. Things begin to seem a bit off, and the further Nan gets into her studies, the more she begins to suspect she may be rooming among the very witches she came to research. Anyway, Feb. 1st rolls around, Candlemas eve, and Nan, the pretty young virgin, discovers a bird with a skewer through it (a starling, I noticed) in her dresser drawer - a sign that she's pretty much a goner. Soon afterward, she is spirited away post haste by the witches and sacrificed to some pagan god - no, it's probably Satan himself; these witches don't play. One of the witches in attendance at the sacrificial altar is none other than Prof. Driscoll! So he was a witch all along! I'm thinking that with post-secondary education enrollment rates dropping, more and more professors may be turning to black magic to secure tenure. Ba-dum-bing! (I'm sorry, that was horrible...)
Two weeks later, her brother and her beau begin to get suspicious that Nan hasn't returned, so they venture to Whitewood to find out what happened. Long and short of it is this: they discover that their arrival marks the second night of the year when the witches must make a sacrifice (the first was Candlemas eve) - and the witches have their eye on the only other good person in town, the preacher's granddaughter, Patricia, who has taken a bit of a shine to the recently arrived Prof. Barlow. Well, a bird with a skewer through it (I noticed it was a cedar waxwing - what does it all mean!?!) and a sprig of woodbine on the door means that Pat has been targeted to be the next sacrificial lamb. Many thrilling close calls ensue, but it ends with Pat and Barlow escaping, Bill dying (when Mrs. Newless whips a friggin' dagger across the graveyard and it lodges in his back - wicked scene - but not before he can carry a cross that literally shoots tongues of flame at the witches - it's dope), and Mrs. Newless being outed, finally, (as if it wasn't painfully obvious for the entire film), as Elizabeth Selwyn. Actually, if the heroes had simply phonetically reversed "Selwyn", they would have realized that "Newless" isn't far off....dummies.
I absolutely love this film, the amount of fog pumped in is immense. It really has a creepy, mysterious vibe, but retains a sense of fun throughout. Beautiful black and white photography, and a loopy, oboe-heavy jazzy score complete the picture. This is director Moxey's high watermark - he mostly cranked out workmanlike fare in television for the rest of his career (everything from Coronation Street to Magnum P.I., and everything in between) - though a close second would have to be the Darren McGavin vehicle The Night Stalker, the first of two TV-movies that were followed by the incredible series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
And although Lee is highly touted on the DVD box and in the credits, he really only plays a small (admittedly important) part in the film. Some false advertising of the "star" that reminded me of the top-billing of Brooke Shields in Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion), although she lasts all of five minutes before being killed. A metaphor for her career?
City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel in North America) is quite easy to find for a couple of bucks as a public domain print on countless "Horror Classics" collections - I have one of these and the print actually isn't bad - but I'm such a fan of the film that I recently upgraded to the more expensive but beautifully presented and extras laden VCI edition. I hear the Roan Archival Group edition is also very worthy. Check it out if you get a chance. Highly recommended for a spooky good time.