On March 3, 1692, villagers of Whitewood, Massachusetts burned Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) at the stake while she vowed revenge. In the modern day, college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) decides to spend her winter vacation researching witchcraft in New England, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee, 1941) recommends she go to Whitewood, and that she stay at the Raven’s Inn (which just happens to be located where Selwyn was burned alive). When she arrives, she finds a village shrouded in mist and nearly deserted, and the only friendly inhabitant is antique and bookstore owner Patricia Russell (Bettie St. John). Russell moved back to Whitewood to take care of her grandfather, the town Reverend (Norman Macowan, X: The Unknown), who recently went blind and tends his church for an absent flock.
When Nan doesn’t return on time from her trip, and the police turn up no answers, her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) is suspicious and decides to go to Whitewood himself to investigate-followed by Nan’s boyfriend, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor). Of course, it’s fast approaching the anniversary of the witch burning in Whitewood….
Some SPOILERS follow
City of the Dead, released in the United States as Horror Hotel, was the first film by Vulcan Productions, which would later become Amicus, Hammer’s main rival in English-produced horror films. The film’s structure-what appears to be the lead character drives to a remote town, stays at a creepy inn, and is killed, only to be replaced by a relative and a boyfriend who aren’t satisfied with the police account of what happened-is reminiscent of that of Psycho, although that film was released only a couple of months before this one, and not in the UK until just a month prior.
Although one would expect Christopher Lee to be a great benefit to the production, he’s a second tier villain here, showing up only for a few scenes, with Jessel providing the main villain. The film manages to build mood on what appears to be a very low-budget (very few sets, and Whitewood is clearly a sound stage with a few building fronts and a lot of fog), pulling out some old gems like the vanishing hitchhiker (not once, but twice), and quite effective scenes of cloaked townspeople streaming into the graveyard. On the negative side many of the cast members are not good actors (even Lee spends a lot of his time all but twirling his mustache and giving the shifty eyes), and the cheap sets are distracting-it feels like watching an extended anthology series episode rather than a film. There’s also the incredibly inappropriate light Jazz score-because, if there’s one thing that says “old New England town with a horrible secret” it’s some asshole noodling on his saxophone. For the climax, City of the Dead suddenly blooms into an entry in the 1960s Gothic Horror cycle, giving us undead witches dispatched (in a fiery fashion) with the shadow of a cross. The film is also a curiosity for being a British film that desperately wants you to believe it’s American-many of the cast attempt to hide British accents, and it’s probable that the characters are located in New York. As someone whose lived nearly all of his life in New England, this low-budget British version of my home was incredibly funny to watch.
City of the Dead/Horror Hotel ping pongs between “So-Bad-Its-Good” and solid Gothic horror, and is a must see for any fan of old horror movies who knows New England well, although Christopher Lee fans may find it slightly disappointing.