The October Project, Day 13: The City of the Dead (1960)

I honestly don’t remember why exactly I picked this one up. Solid reviews, probably–that tends to drive the point between skipping and picking up. I don’t think I realized it was a Christopher Lee vehicle before I saw his name in the credits, though. It has the unique ability to have woven itself into a number of musical places (not always intentionally, I think) I’m familiar with: at a stretch, the Clash’s b-side to “Complete Control” shares its name with it, Rob Zombie sampled a line of Lee’s dialogue for the intro to “Dragula”, and, of course, the Misfits produced the track “Horror Hotel”–the American name for the movie (when they removed any and all lines pertaining to “Lucifer”, because people are stupid).

Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is sent to the town of Whitewood, MA on the advice of professor Alan Driscoll (Lee), an expert in the study of witchcraft, which Whitewood has a history of–predictably tied, in its 17th century history and containing state, to the burning of witches. She checks into the Raven Inn at his direction, which is run by one Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel, who bears a striking resemblance to the actress who portrays a witch burnt in flashback at the opening, mostly as she is the same actress). A peculiar stranger (Valentine Dyall), some research from a local descendant (Betta St. John), and the skeptical concerns of her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Tom (Tom Naylor) all come together in a story that is, well, about a town’s history of witchcraft.

There’s something frustrating or amusing about decades-old movies about witchcraft, depending on your viewpoint; in the modern age, most people with their wits about them roll their eyes at the idea of witchcraft and feel more guilt than fear when it comes to burnings. This is a bit of an obstacle, of course–insurmountable to the locked-down disbelief of some, and manageable, but tricky for those of us willing to set aside what seems to be leaning at least somewhat on the notion that this could happen.

Under John Moxey’s direction, George Baxt’s script does admirably with this territory. Movies of this age don’t come from a time when twists and “clever” plots, turns, and subtleties were expected norms, but this one does avoid being too obvious about these things. It feeds more than your average modern one does–it doesn’t have that history of clear horror expectation to massage to the effect of leading you on–but stops far short of explicitly stating or, especially, re-stating anything that is plot-relevant.

The score’s a bit weird–perhaps that’s a theme I’m unintentionally following?–as it includes the odd credit, “jazz by Ken Jones, which at the least includes the really weird choice to put some rather nice but largely upbeat jazz under a few driving scenes. Still, it leads to one of the most effective horror moments in the movie, so I can’t be too hard on it.

If your tolerance for older narrative conventions is low, I think it’s worth steeling yourself for this one, so long as you can also allow yourself to roll with a story about witchcraft–considering it primarily leans on the aspects that are entirely possible (rituals and sacrifice can happen, even if they don’t achieve anything, after all!).

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