Monday, 17 March 2014

Horror Hotel AKA The City Of The Dead (1960)

With atmosphere practically dripping from every frame, Horror Hotel (AKA The City Of The Dead, apparently) is yet another little gem of a movie ripe for rediscovery by horror fans.

It all starts with a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) being burnt at the stake. This happened a long, long time ago and is now a macabre tale being told by Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) to a class full of his students. Not everyone takes the tale all that seriously, but young Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) does. In fact, she wants to visit the site of the alleged witch activity, a small village named Whitewood, and rack up some extra credits for a paper that she's working on. Taking the advice of Driscoll, Nan goes to Whitewood and seeks a room at the hotel run by Mrs Newless . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ignorant of the fact that Mrs Newless looks a LOT like the witchy Elizabeth Selwyn. Things don't look good for Nan.

Don't come to this film looking for logic, because you won't find it. The screenplay by George Baxt, and direction by John Llewellyn Moxey, keep focus on one thing and one thing only. Atmosphere. I don't think I'd be going too far by saying that Horror Hotel is one of the most atmospheric, low-budget movies I can think of, with the exception of Carnival Of Souls.

When Nan Barlow first arrives in Whitewood it quickly becomes clear that the film is a languid nightmare, practically overflowing with dry ice in every "outdoor" sequence. The characters around her help to reinforce that feeling, with people stopping to turn and stare at the interloper, and Jessel being wonderfully evil in her role, even though she doesn't really DO much at all in the first half of the movie.

The cast may not be at the top of their game but, with Jessel and Lee underpinning the whole thing, it's not that bad. Again, this is due to the film being all about the atmosphere. Stevenson is good enough in her role, all wide-eyed naivete and vulnerability, while Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor and Betta St. John are all decidedly average as the people heading after her, and setting out, unwittingly, to uncover the darkness at the heart of Whitewood. Norman Macowan is a lot of fun as the reverend speaking of doom and gloom.

Available in its entirety on YouTube, I encourage viewers to at least give this a watch. If you like it then please try to seek out a decent DVD to purchase. And, if you have any shopping tips, feel free to comment below and let us all know.



  1. I'll definitely join you in strongly recommending this one. Lucio Fulci had clearly seen it, particularly its conclusion, before making CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (as bold a plagiarist as Fulci was, he barely even changed the title). An historical note: this was the film that first brought together Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who, approving of the collaboration, immediately founded Amicus, which was, for years, Hammer's top competition in the UK.

    The DVD version to get is the one from VCI--nothing else even close. It's a beautiful print of the film under its original title and loaded to the gills with extras. There's a full-length commentary by director John Llewelyn Moxley (who, a few years later, shot THE NIGHT STALKER for American television, the debut of Darren McGavin's most excellent Carl Kolchak). There's another full-length commentary from Christopher Lee, and Lee, Moxley, and the actress who played Nan (whose name escapes me at the moment) are interviewed. Lee goes on for something like an hour, covering huge sections of his career (his segment is a must-have for Lee fans).

    No, I don't work for VCI. If it's worth gettin', though--and it is--it's worth gettin' the best.

  2. No worries, and thanks for the heads up. I have changed the link to the VCI release, as I always try to point people towards the best available, be it in terms of quality of movie or selection of extras.

    Yeah, this was the acorn that the one-time mighty oak of Amicus sprang from, and thank goodness for that (always loved their stuff).

    DEFINITELY agree that Fulci took his notes from this for City Of The Living Dead, which is also a favourite of mine.


  3. Great chiller. I love it. I own the VCI release and it looks great. Did you notice the similarities between the film and Hitch's Psycho? In both films a woman vanishes after driving to a hotel. The woman's sibling comes looking for her and discovers that the hotel hides a deadly secret. Both movies were made 1960 so I'm sure it is a bizarre coincidence.

    1. Oh yes, Vitus, I noticed the similarities. I deliberately omitted that from the review, however, to avoid spoiling anything for the people still to discover this gem (and it really is a bit of a diamond in the rough). But I think it's okay for us to mention it here in the comments :-)
      I think I need to get that VCI release.

    2. It's often accused of ripping off PSYCHO, but, in point of fact, the two films were developed simultaneously, and this one began shooting a month before PSYCHO (though it was released 3 months later than the Hitchcock picture). It's almost certainly just a coincidence.

      You should definitely get that VCI release. I wrote about this flick myself a few years ago, back before my blog was consumed by the walking dead:

    3. Nice write up there, very nice indeed :-)