of the Dead (AKA Horror Hotel) 1960 Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, Starring
Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson, Betta St. John and Dennis
Lotis. Arrow 2 disc Blu-ray and DVD released: 24th April 2017
filming began on The City of the Dead, Christopher Lee was already established
as a leading horror star. Hammer was paving the way with a new brand of horror
and Lee had played a huge part in their success playing the Frankenstein
monster, Dracula and the Mummy. The City of the Dead provided the perfect
opportunity for Lee to spread his wings further within the genre by moving into
the realms of witchcraft, the occult and American gothic.
in a small New England village (and hardly a city as the title suggests), Lee
plays Professor Driscoll, an authority on the occult who persuades one of his
students Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to research his hometown of Whitewood,
once the site of witch burnings in the 17th century. Booking herself into the
Raven’s Inn, she soon learns that devil worship among the locals hasn’t been
consigned to the past.
City of the Dead has just about everything working for it. Firstly, it is
drenched in atmosphere and reminiscent of those beautifully crafted movies
produced a decade earlier by the likes of Val Lewton and his films for RKO. Fog
shrouded and shadowy dark sets provide the perfect backdrop for this hugely
enjoyable and extremely well made film. The film also benefits from a great
production team, a blossoming partnership consisting of future Amicus founders
Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. In terms of its technical spec, The City of
the Dead is a genuine delight on the senses. Arrow’s stunning transfer captures all of Desmond Dickinson’s sumptuous
monochrome photography rather beautifully. Boasting a pin sharp picture with
lovely deep blacks and a wonderful balance in contrast, this new 4K digital
restoration (by the Cohen Film Collection and the BFI) is as close to
perfection as you are likely to see. The sound is also clean (and untampered)
presented in uncompressed mono 1.0 PCM Audio. It’s a wonderful viewing
experience, and a welcome change considering the film falls into the public
domain category, which, as a result has seen many inferior releases over the
years. The City of the Dead is an extremely important film, so it’s nice to finally
see it receive the treatment it so fully deserves.
As with a great deal of their releases, Arrow has collated a terrific package. Alongside of its presentation of The City of the Dead they have also included a 1080p version of the alternative US cut, Horror Hotel. At 76 minutes it’s a slightly shorter cut but nevertheless vital to this collection. Additional extras are also plentiful. Star Christopher Lee provides an audio commentary (I believe it was recorded in 2001) which is all very interesting and informative. However, he does occasionally vent his frustration at having to view the film without the aid of any sound? All rather curious, and I can’t say I blame him at all. Nevertheless, thankfully there was little wrong with Lee’s memory and his incredible knowledge of those who share the screen with him and the crew behind the camera. There is also a commentary provided by director John Llewellyn Moxey. Again, it is an interesting enough narration, with a few stories naturally coinciding with those already shared by Lee. Moxey also tends to drift into talking about the overall horror genre in addition to his own movie which perhaps suggests that his recollections are a little more blurred than that of Lee’s. On top of these, there is a further audio commentary recorded exclusively for Arrow’s release. Provided by film critic Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 and Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History, this narration is a highly detailed exploration which I found to be by far the most enjoyable. Rigby provides a wealth of information and at just 78 minutes, there barely seems enough time to include all of the information that he has painstakingly managed to accumulate.
Other bonus material includes a filmed interview with Christopher Lee (lasting a little over 45 minutes) and a further helping of behind the scenes footage with Lee and the production team. There is also a filmed interview with director Moxey and actress Venetia Stevenson which is a rather nice piece. Stevenson provides a great deal of interesting facts on the business, her life and her family, including her father director Robert Stevenson who was also close friends with Hitchcock – all of which is fascinating. All of these interviews are not entirely new; most of it was previously included on the Region A Blu-ray released by VCI in 2016. The theatrical trailer and an image gallery round off the disc’s contents nicely.
The City of the Dead is practically essential to anyone remotely interested in classic horror. Christopher Lee and the entire cast ranging from the extremely beautiful Venetia Stevenson to the exquisitely menacing Patricia Jessel all appear on top form. With almost 60 years behind it, the film still manages to sit very comfortably alongside its timeless Hammer contemporaries. It remains a “must have” title.