In the late ‘50s, after losing out on success with a new version of the Frankenstein story to Hammer, future Amicus men Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky were still determined to have a horror hit to cash in on the money such films were making. Establishing a new production wing of their company to shoot in England and take advantages of tax benefits, the first attempt was originally called Witchcraft. By the time shooting on the film started it was retitled The City of the Dead. Although made in the UK, it’s set in New England and kicks off with a flashback to the late 17th century in the village of Whitewood. There, a woman has been found guilty of practising witchcraft and is to be burned at the stake. The villagers have their fears confirmed when she makes a pact with Satan to curse the place, promising to be his instrument of torture.
In the present day Nan is a young woman working on writing her term paper. Nan attends her professor’s class on legends of witchcraft and is fascinated by it. When the professor (played with an awkward American accent by Christopher Lee) suggests Nan heads out to Whitewood to research the history of the occult in the village she decides to do just that. Staying at the creepy Raven’s Inn, Nan meets the owner Mrs. Newless and discovers the town isn’t too friendly. From there on in things only get worse.
Although following both Hammer’s vividly colourful and gory The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, this film is presented in crisp black and white. It fits the story told better, with the mist and fog shrouded Whitewood becoming a character itself. Nan’s journey puts her in contact with numerous people, including the doomsaying local Reverend, and it’s an agreeably entertaining one. This is full-on Satanists in black cloaks territory with a devilish conspiracy at the heart of it all. It’s ably directed by John Moxey who would later find success in America with all-time classic TV movies like The Night Stalker.
The City of The Dead is neither as cutting edge, dark or as gruesome as its Hammer contemporaries. However there are at least one or two sequences that still hold a chill. Overall, it’s an atmospheric, captivating tale of dark deeds and for anyone who enjoys films of this period, it stands up remarkably well. It’s also another excellent release from Arrow, with a very fine new restoration that makes the most of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography. The extras are very good, including separate commentaries from English Gothic writer Jonathan Rigby, Lee and Moxey and some interesting, wide-ranging archival interviews. Highly recommended.
THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JOHN MOXEY / SCREENPLAY: GEORGE BAXT / STARRING: CHRISTOPHER LEE, VENETIAN STEVENSON, BETTA ST. JOHN, DENNIS LOTIS / RELEASE DATE: 24TH APRIL