The City of the Dead Review
The success of Hammer’s versions of Frankenstein (The Curse of Frankenstein) and Dracula (Dracula) at the end of the 50s had a tremendous influence on the landscape of horror cinema in the UK but also in the rest of the world. By 1960, the year that saw the release of The City of the Dead in the UK, Hammer had released The Hound of the Baskerville, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll whereas in Italy and in the USA, Mario Bava and Roger Corman were respectively releasing Black Sunday and House of Usher.
In addition to their impact on audiences, The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula will also have an indelible impact on producers and in particular on two American producers, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, whose career started in the US with Rock Rock Rock!, a jukebox musical exploiting the fame of Rock & Roll singers like Chuck Berry or the Flamingos, and will later be famous for creating Amicus Productions in 1962, the main Hammer competitor. It is the same Subotsky and Rosenberg who are behind The City of the Dead.
Nan (Venetia Stevenson, Day of the Outlaw, and the daughter of Robert Stevenson, director of Mary Poppins)) is a student of Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee, Dracula), an authority on the occult who persuades her to research his hometown, 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.
The producers hired Lee, who was already a horror icon at the time, thanks to his successful binomial work with Peter Cushing in the aforementioned Hammer films, to lead a cast mixing newcomers (Dennis Lotis, who plays Nan’s brother, Richard), quasi newcomers (Stevenson, who although getting an ‘introducing’ credit already had several movies and TV series behind her, and Tom Naylor, previously uncredited in famous movies like Carve Her Name with Pride and A Night to Remember), and more established actors (Betta St. John (The Robe), Valentine Dyall (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) or Patricia Jessel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)). The direction was entrusted to John Llewellyn Moxey, another quasi newcomer with only a couple of TV series episodes to his credit.
With such a cast and director, and despite Lee’s involvement, The City of the Dead seemed to have all the attributes to join the long list of 50s/60s forgettable Horror exploitation movies, if it was not for two crucial elements; firstly it is beautifully shot by Desmond Dickinson, a gifted Director of Photography who imprinted movies like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet or Anthony Asquith’s The Browning Version of distinctive visual styles, giving it a wonderfully atmospheric atmosphere that stands firmly alongside its Hammer contemporaries.
This is clear from the onset of the movie which sees, on a foggy night in the seventeenth century, puritan villagers walking with torches and pitchforks to the house of Elisabeth Selwyn to accuse her of practicing witchcraft. However, at a time when Hammer was setting a new trend of colour horror movies, The City of the Dead remains in the tradition of refined, ghostly, black and white movies with Dickinson using various depth of fields and expressionist lights to bring a very strong visual identity. Between this refined gothic atmosphere and the supernatural elements of the story, the movie actually reminds some of the famous Val Lewton productions of the 40s, such as Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People or Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim.
In addition to this unforgettable atmosphere, The City of the Dead also benefits from a strong story from Subotsky himself developed into a script by George Baxt, an American playwright, screenwriter and mystery novelist familiar with the genre for having also written Tower of Evil or Circus of Horrors, which shares fascinating similarities with another very famous movie released at the same time, leading to controversy regarding its originality.
Does this mean that The City of the Dead deserves to join the pantheon British Horror cinema? Unfortunately not as the film suffers from a lack of empathy towards its main characters, due in part to its young male casts, a certain lack of rhythm, despite being quite short. However, The City of the Dead remains nonetheless a very pleasant, and atmospherically fantastic, piece of film-making.
The City of the Dead is release on blu-ray disc on 24th April by Arrow Video.
The movie benefits from a brand new 4K restoration from the original negative, restored by the Cohen Film Collection and the BFI, presented here in a 1080p High Definition transfer respecting the original aspect ratio. The image looks very good, nicely rendering the Gothic atmosphere of the movie especially during its numerous foggy shots. However, some scenes look too bright and this becomes especially slightly disturbing during close-ups of the actors. Apart from this relatively minor issue, there is a reasonable amount of grain and I didn’t notice any traces of dirt, scratches or other defects. This is therefore a very good improvement on previous DVD releases.
On the sound side, The City of the Dead is presented in a clear uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM English Audio track with no apparent defects or distortions. There are also removable English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The disc offers a nice array of extras for the most part ported from the VCI DVD previously released in the US.
The first noticeable one is a 1080p High Definition transfer of the alternative US cut of The City of the Dead, which was retitled Horror Hotel at the time, with uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM English Audio. Always a motivating extra on a new release, Horror Hotel is no exception to the rule; it is far inferior to the original British version but it remains an interesting curiosity.
Audio commentary by film critic Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 and Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History
This track was recorded exclusively for this blu-ray release. As you would expect from Rigby, his commentary is packed with insightful, and very interesting, facts and anecdotes about all aspects of the movie from the choice of the shots, or the various actors’ previous roles, to the reviews when it was released in cinema. Rigby is clearly reading a text he prepared for the track and therefore there are no gaps in his interventions making his commentary paradoxically extremely good (he practically tells a story) and quite frustrating (there’s no time to digest some of the information he delivers).
Audio commentary by actor Christopher Lee
This audio commentary, ported from the previous VCI DVD release, features a loquacious and always insightful Lee, and is moderated by Jay Slater. As usual, the famous actor displays an excellent memory, telling many anecdotes related, or not, to the movie. Lee is never boring and this commentary remains the ‘piece de resistance’ of the disc.
Audio commentary by director John Llewellyn Moxey
This audio commentary is also taken from the previous VCI DVD release of the movie. In it Moxey also tells interesting stories and anecdotes about the movie, and he shows a passion about Horror cinema in general. However, this track can sometimes feel a bit tedious as Moxey regularly leaves gaps of various lengths between his interventions.
Interview with Lee (45min)
This is an interesting interview released for a previous DVD edition of the movie in which Lee discuss various aspects of his career (the Hammer movies, his influence on directors like Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Lucas or Peter Jackson, westerns, comedies, bond movies, his Holmes roles, etc.). Lee has many things to talk about and has particularly strong opinions about his typecasting in the UK. It’s always a pleasure to hear Lee discuss his long career even if in this case he tends to get a bit bitter about some aspects of his it.
Interview with Moxey (26min)
This is an interview with the director, also released in a previous DVD edition of The City of The Dead, in which he discusses many topics: the origin of his middle name, how he got the job of directing The City of the Dead (which he refers sometimes under its American title), the Psycho reference, the producers, the Hammer references, the actors of the movie, the omnipresent fog in the movie, horror films and their ambience and his involvement as director on The Night Stalker. Moxey is quite engaging and this make the interview quite interesting as well although a little bit repetitive in comparison with his audio commentary.
Interview with actor Venetia Stevenson (19min)
This is another interview released for a previous DVD version of the movie in which the actress reminisces the shooting of the movie, in particular the fog and her screams. She also discusses Lee, Lotis and Betty St. John, the cinematography by Desmond Dickinson ( The Importance of Being Earnest, her other roles, in particular in William A. Wellman’s Darby’s Rangers, her parents, Alfred Hitchcock, her involvement in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock’s Presents, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke). This interview has some interesting anecdotes but the monotony of Stevenson’s voice makes it sometimes a bit boring.
The disc also contains a gallery of pictures (posters and pictures for the release in various countries and promotional pictures of the actors) and the trailer for the movie.