THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) Brings ‘HORROR HOTEL’ to Blu-ray

VCI released City Of The Dead — better known under the alternate title Horror Hotel — to Blu-ray in a newly restored version on March 28.

The City of The Dead is not to be confused with Lucio Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead, though both are rather amusing misnomers as they take place in remote, rural towns. It is to be confused with Horror Hotel, which was the title applied to the film when it entered the US market with slight cuts. VCI now brings the restored film to home video under its original name.

In 1692, Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake in the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts for the crime of witchcraft. In modern 1960, she still casts a shadow over the remote village.

Upon taking an interest in witchcraft in her studies, a resourceful student named Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is encouraged by her professor (Christopher Lee) to visit the town of Whitewood — his own hometown, which has a dark history of witchcraft — to continue her research. Excited by the prospect of leaping ahead in her studies, she undertakes the trip and makes her stay at the village’s only inn.

Upon arriving, she interacts with the town’s strange denizens, among them the outwardly polite but sinister-acting innkeeper, Mrs. Newless, her timid and mute employee Lottie, and the jittery Reverend Russell, who hides himself within the town’s abandoned, dilapidated church.

The village is perpetually thick with fog and grim portent. Is the Whitewood merely cursed with a shameful history, or still a haven for disciples of Satan? This sense of atmosphere is one of the film’s greatest strengths. As the mystery unravels and more of the town’s inner workings are revealed, we’re presented with eerier sights: the abandoned church, a lonely graveyard, secret passages, and mysterious cloaked figures prowling the street at night.

To discuss the film’s plot any deeper veers quickly into spoiler territory, but the film works its way to a rousing and visually stunning, immediately iconic climax, as a small group of heroes (Nan’s friends) takes on the ancient coven of witches that runs Whitewood, using knowledge of their Satanic weakness — the power of the Cross.

My only criticism of the film is that while the production design and cinematography are great, at times the movie’s soundstage artificiality is just too readily apparent and TV-like. The town of Whitewood in particular looks artificially tiny (it’s basically three buildings) and stagey. In the film’s defense, this does add to the surreal atmosphere, but overall I found it to be a distraction.

Further Analysis and Similarities with Other Films:

I noticed while watching that the film bears considerable similarities to two particular films, The Wicker Man and Psycho.

This section contains spoilers of all three films.

The Wicker Man (1973) similarly follows a stranger entering the madness of a secluded town where the populace is united in their paganism and malice. Of course, the most obvious connection is that Christopher Lee plays similar roles in both, as a cunning and nefarious adversary who orchestrates the outsider’s arrival for the purpose of serving as a blood sacrifice. The Wicker Man takes the alienation a few steps further. Whereas Nan Barlow runs into a couple of sympathetic characters who are willing to help her, Sgt. Howie is completely isolated and without allies.

The other film with startling similarities is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both films are black and white, despite being created well within the era of color-prevalence. Both films initially center on a pretty young woman, ostensibly the lead protagonist, as she travels to a remote inn, but these characters are surprisingly butchered early on. Their disappearances are similarly investigated by a concerned sibling and friends who become the main characters and ultimately unravel the mystery. The similarities are so pronounced that one might suspect that one film copied the other, but to add to the bizarre commonalities, both films released in September of 1960, and history confirms that their astonishing similarity is completely coincidental.

The Package

This is a very loving, if perhaps a bit rushed, attempt to bring this classic film to Blu-ray. Long in the public domain as Horror Hotel, the film has been available in many poor DVD releases. Spending money to restore and release a film that’s available in the public domain always presents a risk for distributors, so it’s greatly appreciated that VCI made the effort. This new disc features the film’s original title and running time, and a restored image which, while a bit soft, is a pristine revelation compared to the awful PD releases that have been so prevalent.

Special Features and Extras

The disc’s design and authoring feels just a bit wanting. While it’s clear they tried to make this the definitive version of the film — and indeed succeeded — some aspects are clumsy. There’s a very prominent misspelling on the disc’s menu, and some typos throughout the subtitle track (counterpoint: props for including subtitles). The disc’s features are quite plentiful, but also a bit hit and miss. Most have poor video quality with very evident blocking and combing. That said, it’s clear that they stuffed this disc with as much supplementary material as possible to make it a valuable purchase.

Horror Hotel [SD] (76:02)
 The slightly cut US version is included as a bonus feature, but the video quality is so poor that I quickly abandoned any thought of watching it.

3 Commentaries:
 The film includes a whopping three feature commentaries, featuring Christopher Lee, director John Moxey, and, new to this edition, film historian Bruce Hallenback.

2001 Interview with Christopher Lee (45:09)
 A career-spanning interview with the legend.

Interview With Director John Moxey (26:23)
 A conversation with the film’s director, who has a pleasantly chirpy accent and a knack for storytelling.

Interview with Venetia Stevenson (19:31)
 Stevenson recalls her experiences on the film (one of her last as an actress) as well as a bit about her later work in film production.

Behind-The-Scenes Interview with Christopher Lee (16:37)
 Consumer-grade footage from Christopher’s time working with the folks producing on the Blu-ray/DVD restoration.

Photo Gallery

Trailer (1:33)
 This is a new HD trailer which restores the film’s title.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
City Of The Dead — [Blu-ray] | [Instant]

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