Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: City of the Dead (1960)

City of the Dead is a surprisingly good little film from 1960. It’s in black and white, unlike Hammer’s horror fare which by this time was in full colour, and the director makes best use of his palette of greys, creating a brooding, hypnotic landscape through which the characters stumble ...

The plot is tried and tested: a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is burnt at the stake in the past, and curses the village and those who killed her ... flash forward to the present, and Christopher Lee plays a creepy professor, Driscoll, who recommends that one of his students, Nan (Venetia Stevenson), heads off to the village of Whitewood to investigate the myths firsthand.  The village seems constantly wreathed in low-lying mists and darkness, and of course everyone is behaving suspiciously ... until all is revealed that creepy Mrs Newless (Patricia Jessel again) is the reincarnation of the original witch. And that Nan is the next sacrifice ...

Except this isn’t the end of the story ... It’s somewhat shocking that Nan is killed half way through the film – shades of Janet Leigh in Psycho, which also came out in 1960. It’s up to Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) to come looking for her ... retracing her steps, right down to discovering the underground tunnels and witches’ lair ... before all is resolved by a neat bit of invented legend, that the shadow of a cross causes witches to burst into flame!

It’s a fun film, and the performances are all pretty much first rate. Christopher Lee is great as the professor, and the rest of the cast seem to reach for the bar that he sets. The film also seems ahead of its time in terms of the look and feel of the settings, and the handling of the witchcraft element is similarly well done.  A superior example.

Directed: John Llewellyn Moxey

Story by: Milton Subotsky

Screenplay: George Baxt

Arrow DVD released 24 April 2017

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