City of the Dead (1960) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Patricia Jessel, Valentine Dyall
Director: John Moxey

Two years before they founded the legendary Amicus Productions, the already-established duo of producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg came together under the name Vulcan Film Productions, making just the one horror film, but what a film it was.

While it was in no way reinventing the wheel with it’s tale of witches and devil worship, City Of The Dead stands out because of just how well it uses every cliche in the book. Everything, from the set design and photography to the performances of heavyweights like Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel and Valentine Dyall is cranked up to ten in attempt to chill the audience and by God, does it work.

1692. In the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, Elizabeth Selwyn is accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. She actually is a witch though and calls down the power of Satan to not only save her, but give her and her coven eternal life.

Almost 300 years later, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a bright, young co-ed taking a class in witchcraft under the tuition of Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), who advises her to make a trip to Whitewood as research for her paper.

Taking a room at The Raven’s Inn, ran by the intense Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), Nan begins to look into the horrific history of the quiet town, but soon finds out that witchcraft is alive and well in Whiitewood…

What a relentlessly entertaining film City Of The Dead is. Right from the off with that deliciously vicious burning scene, it’s only goal is to keep you guessing while it creeps you out and it succeeds admirably.

We’ve seen loads of witches burned at the stake, but how many of them actually are witches? And how many of them can then call on Old Nick himself to step in?

In the present day again, things aren’t always what they seem. Christoper Lee’s Professor Driscoll knows more about Witchcraft and the town of Whitewood than he’s letting on, while Mrs Newless is older than she looks. About 300 years older to be precise.

The biggest surprise is what happens to ostensibly the star of the movie. For the first full half of the screentime, it’s been Nan Barlow’s story. Charismatically played by the beautiful Stevenson (who would retire from acting soon after to marry an Everley Brother), it feels like a star vehicle for her and she’s completely convincing in the part. She’s smart, confident and inquisitive. And she gets brutally sacrificed to Satan halfway through the film. It’s a real shocker and not one that you can possibly see coming.

Now yes, that all does sound familiar.

It’s 1960. A beautiful and intelligent young woman leaves the city and finds herself in a creepy hotel, where she gets knifed to death half way through the film. It’s Psycho. But although Hitchcock’s classic was released three months before, it actually started shooting a month after City Of The Dead. The Bloch book had been out already of course, but this looks like nothing more than a very weird coincidence.

She’s replaced as the lead by not one but two men, her brother and colleague of Driscoll, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor) who rush to Whitewood to discover what happened to her. They’re both fine and do a job, but can’t help be overshadowed by the black hats.

Coming off the back of portraying Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Mummy, Lee is his usual imperious self and while his role isn’t huge, he unsurprisingly commands every scene he’s in, but it’s the often double act of Jessel and Dyall that really shine here. As the ageless witch and warlock couple, they both radiate sheer, gleeful malevolence at every turn.

Jessal is cold and spiteful, relentlessly bullying her mute servant girl (and worse), but friendly on the outside as she lures Nan to her doom, while Dyall’s Jethrow Keane is a leering, lascivious presence, relishing in his disturbing abilities to come and go literally by magic – “To see me is a special privilege reserved for a chosen few…”

It’s not just the casting that makes this so enjoyable though, as it looks and feels magnificent, ticking all the boxes for a good, creepy horror film. The town itself is brilliantly realised, small, compact and claustrophobic, it’s run-down and ramshackle look really makes it feel otherworldly and not in a nice way. There’s never anything less than knee-deep dense fog floating around, there’s a graveyard full of slanted tombstones and skeletal trees, there’s flickering candlelight, cobwebbed underground passages and hooded figures in the distance. It’s wonderful.

City Of The Dead is no classic, but it’s not far off. It’s slow, steady pace gives the visuals and atmosphere time to breathe, to build up its tension and growing feeling of horror. Consistently creepy, often surprising and always, always entertaining, City Of The Dead is a wonderful entry in the canon of British horror.

Rating: 4.5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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