Horror Bob Presents: The Horror Review

   City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) (1960)

 Film Title: City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) Year Released:  1960
Reviewed By: Egregious Gurnow
Movie Website: N/A
Overall Stars: ***1/2 Scare Factor: ***1/2


Who’s to say where imagination ends and truth begins?”  --Richard Barlow

   In hopes of breaking the British horror monopoly of the time, held by Hammer Studios, Amicus Productions’s issued their first film, John Moxey’s City of the Dead (released in America as Horror Hotel).  A minor accomplishment in and of itself outside the consideration of the studio’s lack of experience and modest budget, City of the Dead is a highly stylized, Lovecraftian witchcraft narrative which reminds us that gore is not a prerequisite for establishing and sustaining suspense and dread as Moxey supplements such with atmosphere and a poignant sense of gothic irony.

   Upon the advice of her professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) decides to conduct field research for a paper upon Witchcraft in the small, historical village of Whitewood where--over 250 years prior--Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) was condemned to die at the sake for the crime of being a witch.  When Nan fails to return to her hometown, her brother, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), and boyfriend,  Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), go in search for her with the aide of Whitewood’s sales clerk, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John).

   But before we begin with the film proper, I must first pause to consider why and how City of the Dead works whereas most witchcraft productions fail.  A majority of narratives involving witchcraft largely disappoint because the audience is asked to suspend disbelief for far too long in relation to the various crafts and practices regarding the black arts atop said films being preoccupied with the “whys” and “hows” of witchcraft as opposed to the product of such affairs.  Conversely, Moxey’s film spends very little time with the dark rituals per se and replaces them with suspense via the veil of ambiguity in regard to such activities.  Indeed, a little goes a long way in this respect but, masterfully, Moxey--by doing the converse of what most in his place opt to do--not only makes our minds fill in the gaps, but forces them--ergo prompting the worst of our imaginations--to do so with worst case scenarios. 

   In a nutshell, City of the Dead is comprised of the substantial elements which make John Carrpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (released a month prior to Moxey’s film), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho ever impressive affairs.  Moxey takes the Lovecraftian atmosphere, repetition, and dread of Carpenter and combines it with the plot of Bava while incorporating some ironically coincidental, but nonetheless effective, scenes from Hitchcock.  What results is an often overlooked gem of a film.

   In respect to what exactly Moxey does with his time, his foremost concern is creating and sustaining an ominous sense of dread not unlike the manner in which H.P. Lovecraft places us, time and time again, in foreboding circumstances.  Once we enter Whitewood, we are not only greeted by a blanket of fog which makes Carpenter’s The Fog seem like a clear day, but our reception becomes a humbling experience in that the populace is extremely xenophobic and those which are the slightest bit receptive inadvertently offset our overbearing willingness to bond to such characters due to their peculiarities.  For example, Lottie (Ann Beach), a maid at The Raven (the inn in which Nan is staying), seems warm but, unfortunately, is a mute while the local parishioner, Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan), is not only blind but only pauses long enough to urge us to leave the town immediately. 

   If the physical, as well as social, isolation weren’t Lovecraftian enough, as in Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, Moxey compounds our anxiety via a motif that can be justly labeled a literal representation of Nietzschian Recurrence:  As each character enters Whitewood, the individual not only ironically treads the same route as those who came before, but as the figure surveys the premises, the townspeople appear in the same order and sequence as before as they perpetually loom in the background.  Eerily, Elizabeth Nywles, the manager of the Raven, not only strikingly resembles the fabled Selwyn of yesteryear, but her name is a palindrome yet, cunningly, Moxey’s integration of language continues to pervade as Elizabeth provides, verbatim, answers to the exact same questions to each character who enters the motel. 

   Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Nan’s dilemma is the manner in which the people of Whitewood patiently wait for her.  Instead of forcibly apprehending her, they instead permit her to surrender herself upon her own volition as curiosity inevitable leads our female protagonist into incrimination before the ghost of Lovecraft appears once more, this time in the guise of hooded monks.

   Historically, City of the Dead is fascinating in that Hitchcock’s gothic masterpiece shares many, nearly mirrored, scenes and sequences with Moxey’s production, the latter having been released three month after Psycho’s premier.  Our heroine is killed early in the film as the second half of the feature focuses upon a relative and the deceased’s boyfriend in pursuit of the missing person, who was last reported to have been residing at a strange hotel before the film climaxes with a retina-burning visual, as does the Master of Suspense’s production.  Though happenstance, this reflective quality of City of the Dead, as it unintentionally feeds off it is famed peer, nonetheless parallels the aforementioned motif found within the work, thereby reinforcing itself by default and haphazard coincidence.

   Granted, John Moxey’s City of the Dead is only that, a near masterpiece in that if the film where to extend past a little short of eighty minutes, it could have availed itself to presenting its characters a bit more articulately, thereby flushing them out to a more satisfactory degree, instead of having to resort to somewhat clichéd caricatures yet, given the production company’s lack of funds, what Moxey does accomplish, largely by way of understatement while never submitting to the quick shock or visual repulsion, is very admirable and, though dated, stands as a work which makes one regret the craft and skill which has largely disappeared from modern day horror treatments. 

 -Egregious Gurnow


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