Purchase The City of the Dead [Blu-ray] from Amazon!
Recently released to blu-ray by VCI, City of the Dead (arguably better known as Horror Hotel) may feature Christopher Lee as the top-billed star, but the film focuses more on actress Venetia Stevenson. Stevenson plays “Nan Barlow”, a young, ambitious college student working on her term paper on witchcraft. Her professor, Alan Driscoll (Lee), encourages her to take a weekend trip to the small New England village of Whitewood, the site of the burning of accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn some 300 years earlier. Selwyn, as we are shown in the film’s opening sequence, uses her dying breath to curse the small town.
Nan’s brother, Richard (singer Dennis Lotis), is also a professor at the college. He protests her going as she is to accompany him to the birthday party of a family member that weekend. Nan’s boyfriend, Bill (Tom Naylor), also mildly protests, although his complaint stems from his believing that witches and magic are a bunch of “fairy nonsense”, a sentiment that Richard also shares. Despite their arguments, Nan makes the trip anyway, saying that she’ll only be gone for a day or two.
Nan makes the trek into Whitewood, driving down dimly lit streets blanketed in as much fog as they are blanketed in night. The image of the fog swimming through the darkened sea of night lends the undertaking a sinister tone. This feeling is escalated when Nan stops to pick up Mr. Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall – The Haunting, Casino Royale), a hitchhiker who seems to know more about the town than he discloses. The cramped camerawork inside Nan’s car creates a sense of claustrophobia, as well as hints at Nan’s being closer to danger than she expects.
Whitewood is a very small, almost deserted looking town. It features a dilapidated old church and accompanying graveyard, a book store, and The Raven’s Inn, the small inn that Driscoll has recommended she stay at. And it’s a helpful recommendation, especially since it’s the only inn in town. As they arrive at the inn, Keane mysteriously vanishes from the car. Little does she know that she will surely see him again.
Nan enters the Raven’s Inn and is met by Lottie, the mute housekeeper. After a failed attempt to converse with the mute, the innkeeper, Ms. Newless (Patricia Jessel – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), appears. Newless informs Nan that the inn is currently full, however, a small room does become available once Nan says that Driscoll referred the place to her. Nan is shown to her room. She is quickly alerted to a cellar door hidden under a rug in the room, but Newless assures her that the ground beneath was filled in many, many years prior. Nan doesn’t quite believe this and remains curious as to what lies hidden beneath.
Nan decides to make a quick walk-through of the town before calling it a night. She stops first at the run-down church. Despite the appearance, the place has not been deserted. An old blind priest still watches over the church. He warns Nan to leave, telling her that the town belongs to the Devil. Even though Nan dismisses the old man’s claims, she can’t help but notice the way that the few visible townsfolk silently stare at her as she walks through the town square.
Nan makes her way to the bookstore, which is operated by the priest’s granddaughter, Patricia (Betta St. John – Corridors of Blood, High Tide at Noon). Patricia has recently come to town herself to help take care of her grandfather after the recent passing of her grandmother. Her presence shines a light on a few of the film’s plot holes, but for the sake of not spoiling any upcoming developments, we won’t delve too deeply into those. Let’s just say that if Whitewood is as evil a place as it is soon presented to be, Patricia’s presence in town should never have been allowed by the “elder members” of Whitewood’s population.
Patricia takes to Nan and lends her an old book on the history of witchcraft in Whitewood. Nan returns to the Raven’s Inn and promptly immerses herself in studying the book. And why not? There ain’t shit else to do in this dead little city. After a brief discussion with Newless about the town’s history of witchcraft, as well as rumors of sacrificial rituals, Nan finally decides to turn in for the night. As she does so, she notices that the date on the calendar is February 1st. Candlemas Eve, the day that the witches would allegedly gather for their own ceremonies mocking the ceremonies of the church. This is also the day that most of those rumored sacrifices occurred.
Around this point, the film takes a surprising turn of direction. This turn leads other characters to Whitewood, delivering them into the hidden awaiting hands of danger. While the secret of Whitewood is of no surprise to viewers that have actually been paying attention, the path that leads us there does have a couple forks in the road that first time viewers may not expect.
Despite the ominous appearance of the central locale, the gothic atmosphere, and the presence of Lee, City of the Dead was a financial failure upon release. The film was later retitled Horror Hotel and re-released packaged with other horror films as part of drive-in and bargain matinée double headers. Part of this audience indifference may be due to the film being overshadowed by the release of another instant classic that same year. I won’t say what movie that was, but both that film and this share a very similar major plot point.
Lee gets a chance to ham it up a bit with his performance as “Driscoll”, but never gets excessive. Patricia Jessel shines as the deceptive “Newless”, stealing the focus from her co-stars in each scene. The other performances are adequate enough to not be distracting, although Stevenson looks quite memorable in the scene in which she strips down to just a corset. RAWR!
Arguably, the most memorable character is the city of Whitewood itself. Filmed on a sound stage, the city is constantly bathed in a sea of night and fog, making the film feel like a companion piece to some of the best black and white Gothic horrors of the era. The dilapidated buildings and dying trees give the town the aura of a city trapped in time, a sensation that’s really not that far from the truth.
While not the best Gothic horror, witchcraft tale, or Lee film, City of the Dead is still must watch material for any fan of the type of films previously mentioned.
Video/Audio: City of the Dead arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of a 50Gb disc and presented in 1080i. Yes, I did say 1080i. For the most part, the transfer is quite impressive with the amount of fine detail found in facial features, the material of clothing, and hairstyles. It would appear that VCI had released the definite home release of this film with this version……. until.
As stated earlier, one of the defining features of City of the Dead is the dense layer of swirling fog that blankets the city of Whitewood. In many scenes, the fog is quite distinct, appearing to breathe from shot to shot. However, in quite a few other scenes, the fog appears to take on a noticeably pixelated appearance. This distortion ranges from almost undetectable one second to highly intrusive the next. For a film where the fog is the primary set decoration, this is just unacceptable. While not a complete deal breaker, these compression issues/banding are a major blemish on what was otherwise a stellar release.
Featured is a 2.o audio track. While this track won’t rattle any tombstones, I still found it rather impressive. Dialog is always quite clear, while music and audio effects had some weight to them. No static, pops, or hissing were ever noticed.
Behind the Scenes Interview: 16:37- So, this might be a little misleading to some. This is not a behind-the-scenes look at City of the Dead, but instead a behind the scenes look at the filming of an interview with Christopher Lee for VCI’s previous DVD release. The segment features Lee talking about acting and his career as he signs copies for the staff. Of particular note is an anecdote that Lee tells about a particularly negative encounter with the press.
Video Liner Notes by Mike Kenny, Film Reviewer :4 mins – Exactly what it says it is. Instead of placing the liner notes on the blank insides of the cover, they are placed here on the disc for the viewer to read. Viewers will probably watch it once and be done with it.
SD Version of Horror Hotel: This really serves no purpose being here. No one is going to watch this version if they have they HD version. I would have preferred excluding this as an extra and instead using that disc space to try to provide a better picture quality. Just sayin’.
Interview with Christopher Lee: 45:09 – This interview also appears to be from the previous DVD release. The interview starts with Lee discussing some of the directors he’s worked for, including Orson Wells, Richard Burton, and Robert Siodmak. Talk then moves to Lee’s early Hammer films with Terrence Fisher, as well as Lee part in the Hammer Dracula series (and other Hammer films). As few more of Lee’s roles are briefly covered.
It’s nice hearing stories from a legend, and Lee recalls dozens of them crystal clearly….but damn, does he take forever to get there. He has anecdotes within anecdotes and tends to lose track of his original subject, thus making a 1 minute tale turn into a 15 minute quest to get to the kernel of the story. It’s like listening to my mother. No offense, Mom.
Interview with Venetia Stevenson – 19:31 – Originally born in England, Stevenson was raised in America, but moved back as a young adult to pursue a modeling career. This led to a few modeling jobs, which was her primary ambition. Stevenson admits that she got the role in City of the Dead primarily because she sounded American. While I don’t feel that she gives a weak performance, she certainly pales compared to the majority of the cast.
Her recollection of the making of City focuses heavily on set design, as well as the signature use of fog machines. There isn’t much focus on Lee as Stevenson states that she did not know who he was at the time, Lee then still in the early days of the career that would make him an icon.
Stevenson’s is the daughter of director Robert Stevenson and actress Anna Lee. Despite this showbiz lineage, Stevenson says the she never had much desire to be an actor herself. Stevenson was briefly married to actor Russ Tamblyn. However, she would soon quit acting to raise her children from second husband Don Everly. It’s worth noting that Stevenson is the mother of Erin Everly (a fact not mentioned in her interview). Erin is best remembered as the ex-wife of Axl Rose, as well as the inspiration behind “Sweet Child of Mine”.
(In other musical connections, Iron Maiden used clips of City of the Dead in their video for “Bring Your Daughter To the Slaughter”. And fans of old-school punk will surely remember The Misfits’ “Horror Hotel”.)
Interview with John Moxey – 26:23 – Interview with film’s director. While he had directed television and shorts, this was his first full length feature. Moxey talks about his family’s theater past, as well as his own desire to go into theater or film. Moxey grew up a fan of classic horror, but feels that the genre has become “too graphic”, leaving nothing to the imagination.
The film’s trailer is also included.
Final Verdict: This one is the definition of “mixed bag”. For the most part, this far surpasses any DVD version of the film currently available by leaps and bounds. Detail is quite pleasing. Facial features are quite sharp, as are clothing and hair. And when things are going well, the fog, which is almost a character itself, looks lively and natural. Then, on more occasions than acceptable, the banding and compression artifacts creep in and the fog starts to look like something out of the first Silent Hill game.
I’d still recommend this release, but may wait to see if the price comes down. If this were a $5 Mill Creek release, this would be a deal. At its current $18 price point, it might disappoint.