Movie Review: City of the Dead

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall, Norman MacOwan.

If you’re looking for a prime example of the beauty of black and white cinema, then look no further then this title. This has so much atmosphere that you’ll swear the fog is seeping right out from your TV into your living room. Add in the fact that the different shades of the monochromatic colors are used so well to give us such strong whites and the enveloping darkness of the blacks.

The tale is very simple, starting off in the past with a witch being burned at the stake because of her crimes. We can tell from the dialogue that she is not an innocent victim, but one that is truly in league with the Big Lou (aka Lucifer). As expected, she puts a curse on the small town before her demise. We now jump ahead to present time during college lecture on the subject of witchcraft, given by Prof. Driscoll, played by Christopher Lee. One of the students, decides to travel to the area where witches were known to be back then to do more research. Driscoll suggests the perfect town, an very old and small village called Whitewood, where she will find the answers she seeks. And more. We don’t really want to give much more about the plot since it’s best to go into this fresh.

This is the very first film under the name of Amicus Productions, which would soon give Hammer Films some strong competition in the British horror film category. Directing is John Llewellyn Moxey, his first feature film as director, but would soon go one to give us plenty of amazing made-for-TV titles, such as The House That Would Not Die (1970), the original feature The Night Stalker (1972), another modern vampire tale starring David Naughton and Brad Dourif called I, Desire (1982), and even the pilot episode of one of my childhood favorite TV series, Ghost Story (1972). In City of the Dead, with the help of writers George Baxt and Milton Subotsky, cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, they create one of the most atmospheric tales in British horror cinema.

There is such an eeriness of the little town, with its citizens stopping and starring at any new visitors when they arrive. Truly a ghost town with only a few people about, you can tell right away that this is not a good place to be staying in. There is a bit of mystery here to uncover, and some wonderful sequences to create a few goosebumps. If you’re looking for an early example of just how well made, and creepy, and “old black and white” movie could be, this is a prime example of that.  A great cast, lead by Mr. Lee, along with Betta St. John who had recently appeared with Lee, and Boris Karloff in Corridors of Blood (1958). Also appearing is Valentine Dyall, who would appear in another great example of black and white horror, as Mr. Dudley in The Haunting (1963). This is a must when it comes to your horror education when you’re discussing black and white films.

It was cut down a bit and retitled for the American released, now called Horror Hotel, but has been released in several formats in its original version, which is the one you want to get.

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