Monday, 17 May 2010
The City of the Dead (1960) aka Horror Hotel
The rest of the drama takes place in swinging 60s America, where young student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is studying the history of witchcraft which is apparently taught by Christopher Lee (can you see now why I can’t believe it took me so long to find this?) Nan tells Kissy Lee that she’s planning on conducting some independent research on the subject and Count Lee, somewhat suspiciously it has to be said, suggests his home town of Whitewood as ideal for such an endeavour (you remember Whitewood, it’s where they burn ladies, it’ll probably be important later on).
Our heroine duly consults with her nice but dim science geek boyfriend, and her hepcat science teaching brother (Dennis Lotis ) and neither of them think that this is at all a good idea, but this is entirely redundant because Nan doesn’t care what their science brains think she’s a young historian with a mission and she’s going to damn Whitewood whether they like it or not.
Unfortunately, much as I hate to admit it, it turns out that the science boys were right and Nan probably should have stayed at home and gone to the library. To be honest Nan really should have realised something was erring on the wrong side normal when faced with a sinister mist and a creepy hitcher before she even arrived at Whitewood. The signs were there, Nan, really they were. But our intrepid historian cares not for such trivialities and merrily wends her way to the Raven’s Inn and checks in with the eerily familiar proprietor, Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel. Again) and without any qualms at all happily accepts an invitation to this eerie stranger’s evening soiree. Then some more stuff happens including meeting a cuteypie lady bookseller, some sinister villagers, a minxy flash of our heroine in her underwear (oh, yeah!), some jazz and dancing with the assembled Raven’s Inn ‘guests’ and a portentous blind priest who warns her to get out of town.. Really, Nan, the signs!
Sadly it isn’t all pretty booksellers and dancing (things rarely are) and very soon Nan finds herself abducted into the catacombs below the hotel, where she is ritually sacrificed by the natives. Bet you didn’t see that coming! A black and white movie from 1960 where you trustingly believe the young lady you initially meet on a journey to a creepy location out in the middle of nowhere is our heroine only to find her brutally murdered less than half way through! Who’d have thought it? Wait a minute…….
In the absence of a heroine we are then forced to rapidly switch allegiances and reassess our fictional world. We’ve got a cuteypie bookseller though so that’s ok. It is then left to the science world’s equivalent of the Hardy Boys Nan’s brother, who’s amusingly named Dick, and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) to investigate and sort out this nefarious den of witchery.
While there may not be anything startlingly original about The City of the Dead, it is still a thrilling and bizarrely convincing supernatural horror. I say bizarrely convincing because really, in theory, everything about it shouldn’t work, we’ve got a largely British cast pouncing about exhibiting less than perfect American accents (a refreshing change, I suppose), heavily stylised studio sets representing a small town in New England, perpetual heavy fog rolling about the place, not to mention the support of an assemblage of overly dramatic villagers rhubarbing for all they’re worth. But weirdly, by some form of magical cinematic alchemy, it totally works. Somehow the wrongness of it all combines to create the disturbing, chilling sense of otherness, of a claustrophobic, threatening almost nightmarish other world cut from all security and normality.
It was well worth the two seconds of searching I spent finding it and would have been worth hours of website hopping I had anticipated.
To add to my embarrassment at taking so long to find The City of the Dead it turns out it is pretty well culturally referenced. Iron Maiden used bits of it in the video for ‘Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter’, Rob Zombie used Christopher Lee’s opening words at the beginning ‘Dragula’ and then there’s the Misfits song ‘Horror Hotel’. I hate myself.