In 1960, Christopher Lee would embark on one of his best roles as Professor Alan Driscoll in the John Llewellyn Moxey directed The City of the Dead. The film is best known in the United States under the title of Horror Hotel. Whatever the title, the end result is an incredibly atmospheric flick about witchcraft that may owe some of its’ plot to the even more famous Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho.
The plot is fairly short and simple. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a student of Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) and is fascinated about witchcraft and the burnings that took place in Massachusetts. Much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) and brother Richard (Dennis Lotis), she is encouraged by her professor to travel to Whitewood to do research for a paper she is writing. Of course, the town is way off the beaten track and seemingly shrouded in fog all of the time. On her way there, she encounters a mysterious man that we know to be Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall, Doctor Who). In the opening flashback, we witness the burning of witch Elizabeth Selwyn in Whitewood while her lover Jethrow watched on.
Nan arrives at a hotel where the innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel) appears to be very secretive of Whitewood. Despite the warnings of a young mute maid, curiosity gets the best of Nan as she discovers the true nature of Whitewood. What follows is the story of how her brother, with the help of a local librarian and her pastor father, travels to Whitewood to get answers. Not surprisingly, there is much more to Professor Driscoll and the rest of the townspeople than originally thought.
The original screenplay was intended to be a pilot for a television series starring Boris Karloff before it was expanded and turned into a feature film. With Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky serving as two of the producers, this was clearly the groundwork for Amicus Productions some five years later.
The movie has often been compared to Psycho due to its many plot similarities. I wasn’t even aware of these accusations when I first watched it and Psycho immediately came to my mind. A girl travels to a hotel and appears to be the main star of the movie before suddenly getting killed off. Then, a secondary character assumes the lead role as he investigates her disappearance. The producers claimed that the movie started production before Psycho and stated that perhaps Psycho was inspired by The City of the Dead. That might have been valid except that the movies were in production at virtually the same time in two different countries and that Robert Bloch’s original novel had already been published.
The City of the Dead was not commercially successful and didn’t get released in the United States until 1963 under the more simplistic title Horror Hotel. It did have several lines excised for reasons unknown as they helped set the stage for the film and established the curse. Otherwise, the two versions are essentially the same. The City of the Dead has fallen into public domain and is readily available on various DVD sets. Check it out for free on YouTube, complete with all of its original dialogue. Then, tune into episode 339 of the B Movie Cast to hear what Vince Rotolo and the gang there has to say about it.