by Sam Juliano
The following film review of “City of the Dead” is offered up as a “Halloween” special.
John Moxey’s 1961 low-budget City of the Dead is an eighty minute feature that in story, theme and execution could well have fit comfortably on Boris Karloff’s one-hour Thriller, which ran the same year and one beyond. It wouldn’t even seem out of place as one of the one hour Twilight Zones shown a few years later, or even as an installment of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Made on a shoe sting on studio lots, one could hardly anticipate the reputation it has enjoyed to this very day. Sure it features Christopher Lee in a relatively minor role, and offers up an early assignment for celebrated cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, but upon conception and subsequent release it wasn’t especially distinguished. Yet like fine wine, this fog enshrouded story about witchcraft set in the fictional “Whitewood” Massachusetts has risen in reputation and remains one of the very best films of his kind. It trumps the very well made but didactic Burn Witch Burn, and it isn’t at all out of place to speak of it when recalling Mario Bava’s masterpiece Black Sunday, another monochrome gem made the same year as the British City of the Dead. The story device of the young heroine being killed off early in the film was apparently lifted from Hitchcock’s Psycho,
Known in America by a more sensational title, Horror Hotel, the film opens with a stunning prologue, set during the Puritan era in late seventeenth century Massachusetts. A young woman named Elizabeth Selwyn (played by Patricia Jessel) is burned at the stake for “consorting with the devil.” The hostile crowd cheers on her demise, while the woman appeals unsuccessfully to another Puritan named Jethro Keane to help her. Keane, fearing for his own life remains silent, but privately urges Lucifer to assist her when a cloak of darkness suddenly descends to announce his arrival. Selwyn boasts to the crowd that she has made her pact, before she is roasted on the pyre. The scene then segues into the present at the home of Professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) who is highly respected by a young blonde beauty, Nan Barlow (played by Venetia Stevenson, the daughter of the director of Mary Poppins), who informs him privately that she wishes to do her research at a place where witchcraft once flourished. Driscoll tells her he knows just the place – a town “off the beacon track” named Whitewood, and writes down the name of the “Raven’s Inn,” advising her to speak to the woman running the place, a “Mrs. Newless.” (more…)