B&W, 1960, 78 mins. 10 secs. / 76 mins. 19 secs.
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring Patricia Jessel, Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Betta St. John, Tom Naylor, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/NTSC), VCI (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Elite Entertainment (DVD (US R0 NTSC), Troma/The Roan Group (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1), VCI (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

City of the Dead

City of the DeadDismissed as a B-level horror programmer in its day, City of the Dead (known to American audiences at first as Horror Hotel) had the misfortune of being released during what is arguably the best year ever for cinematic horror, 1960. Two of its contemporary heavyweights, Psycho and Black Sunday (both of which this film strongly resembles in unusual ways), went on to influence a whole decade of US and European filmmaking, while this one quietly crept off and scared the bejeezus out of unsuspecting TV viewers. However, its overwhelming sense of atmosphere and efficiently creepy execution have since helped it rise into the pantheon of great '60s horror films and a tale still capable of chilling more than a few unsuspecting viewers.

During the Puritan era, a ferocious witch named Elizabeth Selwyn (Jessel) is dragged out into the town square of Whitewood and condemned to be burned at the stake. Before perishing she utters a curse upon the township and vows to seek revenge. Centuries later, Professor Driscoll (Lee) teaches a course on witchcraft and captures the imagination of Nan Barlow (Stevenson), a perky young college student. Nan decides to use her vacation time to go to Whitewood for her senior paper research project, against the judgment of her boyfriend, Bill City of the Dead(Naylor, doing one of the weirdest fake American accents in movie history), and City of the Deadher brother, Richard (Lotis). A native of Whitewood, Driscoll suggests that Nan stay at the Raven's Inn. After a strange and spooky nocturnal drive during which she picks up a mysterious hitchhiker, Nan arrives at Whitewood and takes her room at the inn, run by Mrs. Newlis -- who bears a striking resemblance to a certain deceased witch. Nan borrows a book from the lovely local librarian (St. John) and settles in for some good, solid fact-finding. When Nan fails to return on time, Bill and Richard fear she might be in trouble and go to Whitewood to find her. What they discover is far more insidious than they could have ever imagined...

Though probably intended to cash in on the growing cycle of Hammer horror hits, even down to recruiting Christopher Lee into the cast, Horror Hotel is a different kind of animal. The New England setting consists mainly of fog-enshrouded studio sets, while the British cast playing American actually gives it an unearthly tone that ultimately works in its favor. The omnipresent fog and constant nightfall are genuinely creepy, and the weird clash of modern skepticism and ancient mysteries provide an engaging City of the Deadconflict for the unpredictable storyline. Much has been made of a plot twist at the end of the first act, but the finale is no less impressive, with a race against time performed in a graveyard populated by chanting demonic figures. Incidentally, five years later co-producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg would go on to co-found Amicus Pictures, a fascinating Hammer competitor responsible for such moody gems as From Beyond the Grave and Asylum. Needless to say, Amicus fans will find many of their favorite City of the Deadelements already in place within this astonishing film.

Due to the American public domain status of the Horror Hotel version, seemingly every public domain label on the planet has taken a crack at this one at some point from the VHS days onward after it was championed by early evangelists Sinister Cinema. A surprising early success on laserdisc in the late '90s for the formerly beloved Elite Entertainment, Horror Hotel was a natural choice for them to release in their first wave of DVD titles in the format's infancy. Their transfer came from a relatively good 16mm print, which suffered only from a five minute stretch of guitar string scratches and, overall, dull black levels. The Roan Group issued another DVD through Troma derived from purportedly the only surviving 35mm elements but suffered from extensive damage. The Roan edition boasts sharper detail and stronger blacks, but it's also too dark in some scenes (the opening credits are completely impenetrable) and suffers from heavy speckling and scratches at several points. The Elite disc also contains a smudgy looking trailer, while the Roan one omits the trailer in favor of an engaging on-camera discussion by Christopher Lee about the making of the film. The first pressing of the Roan version also includes a very odd and City of the Deadunfortunate Easter Egg involving Lee, but most copies were quickly withdrawn.

The first VCI edition on DVD under its original City of the DeadUK title arrived in 2001 and improved things considerably with a richly detailed, sharp transfer for its day. Lee also participates in this version through both a commentary moderated by Jay Slater and video interview (45m6s), along with a nifty video chat with Moxey (26m25s) and Venetia Stevenson (19m37s), who still looks quite lovely and charming. Moxey provides a commentary as well, and it's great hearing the future legend of made-for-TV horror films go into detail about the British film industry at the time and discuss building an entire sinister town on very limited studio means. The US trailer is presented with new digital title cards for some reason. Significantly, this was also the stateside debut of the European cut, which extends the opening execution scene quite a bit and runs almost two minutes longer. In early 2016, VCI brought the film to Blu-ray with all of its DVD extras ported over while adding on a new scholarly commentary by Bruce G. Hallenbeck about the film's significance and role in horror cinema, the shorter Horror Hotel cut, and an additional interview with Lee (16m37s), plus a liner notes booklet by Mike Kenny. Unfortunately the VC-1 encoded transfer (VCI's baffling codec of choice) displayed some significant issues including a very visibly cropped 1.78:1 interlaced transfer (other versions however around 1.66:1 and need that breathing room), a stingy compression rate, and a generally flat, soft appearance. City of the Dead

Produced in collaboration with the Cohen Media Group and the BFI, the 2017 UK dual-format edition from Arrow Video manages to fix the major issues with the American Blu-ray and then some, restoring the correct 1.66:1 framing (adding quite a bit on the top and bottom with a sliver less on the left) and giving the film far City of the Deadmore room to breathe on a dual-layered Blu-ray (the better format to watch this film by far). Film grain is fine and modest but appears to be unmanipulated, whites are more pure and strong than the grayish flatness of the prior Blu-ray, and background depth in particular looks much better here for all scenes inside the inn. Frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the Arrow, while comparison ones from the prior releases are below. The robust LPCM English mono audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) features the best sonic quality of all the releases so far as well, with some nice bass presence at times. The VCI DVD extras have been ported over here -- Moxey and Lee commentaries, the original three featurettes -- with the second Lee piece included as well; basically it's everything except the Hallenbeck commentary, and the U.S. Horror Hotel cut is included as well with identical picture quality. New here is a fine audio commentary by Jonathan Rigby (author of English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 and Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History), whose sonorous delivery makes for a perfect fit with the film as he weaves together connections to everything from The Curse of Frankenstein and The Skull to Montessori. The packaging features a eversible sleeve with the original poster art and a new design by Graham Humphreys and, in the first pressing only, an insert booklet with new liner notes by the BFI's Vic Pratt and a Moxey text interview.


City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead


City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead


City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead City of the Dead

Updated review on April 16, 2017.