One of the best films about witchcraft and revenge is this great little horror called City of the Dead, or as it is known in the U.S., Horror Hotel which stars Christopher Lee and Dennis Lotis. The film begins with a woman being burned alive for being a witch and as it is happening, thunder in the sky booms. So it is that Elizabeth Selwyn swears to serve Lucifer if he grants her life and in the same breath curses the town and those who live in it. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk who are gathered around, there is one among them who also swears fealty to the devil. Many years later, the same two are still alive in the town of Whitewood, a town that is well aware of its curse and as long as the witches continue to sacrifice virgins, that curse will remain.
Christopher Lee brings an excellent performance to bare as well as an American accent in his role as a college professor. This film sees him play a man with two personalities; one that requires him to be suave and proper as well as being on his best behaviour, though you are soon to find out it is all an act. The script and story by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky is done exceptionally well as you do not expect Lee to be a villain in this picture though more often than not, he is always a man with less than righteous actions. The role calls for Lee not only to deceive those around him but young women in particular, women that are needed back in Whitewood to fulfill the annual ritual. Lee’s best roles are not those that see him as the straight-up hero or villain, but those that cast an ambiguous light upon him and as such, always keep you guessing as to what he might do next or what it will see him revealed to be.
Though Lee might be the biggest name on the marquee, the rest of the cast was just as solid with performances that really drew you into the film. Venetia Stevenson played the naive young student Nan Barlow that Lee sends to Whitewood as an unwitting sacrifice and she really nails down that unsuspecting, wide-eyed innocence needed for the role. Dennis Lotis is Nan’s brother Richard, a man who finds it strange that his sister has gone missing and intends to get to the bottom of it. He has a determination about him and when he reaches the town, he finds that it might be a little harder to do what he has to in order to find his sibling. Patricia Jessel plays a double role in the film, that of the witch Elizabeth Selwyn as well as the innkeeper, Mrs. Newless and does an incredible job of the role and that eerie, nasty and scary aura she exhibits is really quite amazing.
Everyone, from the smallest part to the largest role, gave it their all and with some really strong directing from John Moxey, the movie grabbed you right from the start and refused to let go. It also helped that the picture itself looked gorgeous being filmed in crisp black and white and that it was generally unnerving at times. Even from the very beginning of the film as the witch is screaming her protestations and devotions or later when you notice she is still alive and working at the local inn, not really believing that it could be her you felt a bit chilled so good was Jessel’s performance. Combine that with the lighting and the atmospheric mood of the film and then the cinematography by Desmond Dickinson who really did a fantastic job of it on a limited budget and this movie is one dread-filled ride. The best shot of the entire film has to be the end scene where Tom Naylor’s character Bill is carrying that giant cross towards Lee and the coven. It was a beautiful piece of photography and a very powerful image to behold, really bringing forth the themes of life, death and divinity in the film.
The horror is ever-present and palpable in this movie and is felt in almost every scene. You feel it through the vigor and passion of the witch’s oath, you can see the fear and misery on the faces of the townspeople and it is visible in the priest’s body language, never mind the words that he utters. City of the Dead is a great piece of filmmaking, from beginning to end, from the creative side to the production and is a film that can be easily watched upon multiple viewings. Catch it if you can.