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The City of the Dead Redux


GordonCole
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Last week on Thursday, a rather negative review of the movie, The City of the Dead was reviewed herein on the I Just Watched thread, by a respected poster at TCM. I will take this opportunity to post an alternative viewpoint as I feel [and hope others do also] that all opinions are worthy of exposure at this forum.

The opening credits of the film portend a medieval feeling what with an elegant demonic monk theme, accompanied by Gregorian chant background music. We then enter the realm of a very Lovecraftian environs in New England, which could be Arkham if it weren’t called Whitewood, with apologies to Blanch Dubois. Harking back to Dreyer’s Vampyr, we see ghostly images achieved by the skillful hands of noted director of photography, Desmond Dickinson who also lensed such classics as Hamlet, The Rocking Horse Winner, The Browning Version and others. What Dreyer achieved by shooting at twilight, Dickinson does with the aid of a sprayed paraffin that casts a mysterious spell on the village. 

The period is set in 1692, namely March the 3rd echoing a kind of Salem witch trials mood since a local harridan is being subjected to the ritualistic fires after a Candlemas celebration. In refusing to recant but instead cursing her accusers, they invoke the noted diatribe, “Burn, witch, burn!” in venomous tones yet are somewhat stymied by a burst of rain, which delays the final denouement of the life of witch, Elizabeth Selwyn [Patricia Jessel]. These are the first usages of the four elements in the film, of fire, water, earth and air, though Taoism adds wood, another essential item in the movie.

The viewer is now transported to modern times with Professor Driscoll, as played by Christopher Lee, to debate the veracity of such demonic personages with his students, in his lecture on “The History of Witchcraft in 17th Century New England”. Any researcher of demonology or covens will tell you that when Driscoll directs young and innocent, Nan Barlow [Venetia Stevenson] to visit an Inn named after Ravens, that things may become hazardous but such is the way of all flesh and now we are on the road to the misty, foggy, eerie world of Whitewood.

I need not go into any further details about the plot, so as to despoil it, let’s just say that Nan may meet her destiny on Candlemas Eve, and leave it at that. I would rather remark on many of the virtues of this extremely low budget film that has garnered praise as a cult item on many fronts. The storyline with the assistance of George Baxt is literate and intriguing and bears an interesting connection to the later renowned horror classic he worked on with Richard Matheson called, “The Night of the Eagle” which was also graced with a second moniker, “Burn, Witch, Burn”. The director, John Moxey derived incredible visual effects with a small budget, and produced said film entirely on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios. As Moxey has stated quite eloquently, his desire was to make films for people with creative imaginations who did not need to be spoon fed. For those who need films to be more formulaic and straightforward in imagery, this film is not for them. Moxey’s use of half shadows and chiaroscuro would have impressed Caravaggio, and is artistically rendered throughout in a macabre way, reeking of evil but with hidden violence.

I feel it unnecessary to explain to long time horror fans, of silents and talkies, that the movie contains a certain Descent Motif in the heroine’s intrepid entrance into dangerous waters in which she is bound to become a sacrificial victim. This theme along with Moxey’s mise-en-scene tendencies in shot selections brings the viewer into the film willingly in morbid curiosity. We also are aware that in Reformation times, any search for forbidden knowledge was greeted with those ending up in the Devil’s Hellmouth possibly. Credit should also be mentioned for the choices of villagers with faces reminding one of a Bosch or Hogarth painting.


This movie is full of atmospheric touches of an auto-da-fe audacity, that remind horror film buffs of antecedents in the genre like The Devil and Daniel Webster particularly in the frenetic dancing scene and influenced later films like Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Tombs of the Blind Dead by Osirio and even The Exorcist. It’s resemblance to Psycho in some plot points has been noted by many over the years, yet interestingly it preceded Psycho in production.

All in all, one can only believe that the film in all its minor classic glory would have pleased both Howard Phillips and the professors of the occult at Miskatonic University and even witchfinder general, Mathew Hopkins more than any Peine Forte et Dure could have supplied in ardor of the fantastic. The City of the Dead is for some, a truly unique and remarkably beautiful and poetic film. Before judging a film by only one reviewer, which might dissuade one not to view it... remember:

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

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I didn't see the negative review here. I think The City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) is one of the great horror films. Captivating, literate story, creepy, moody atmosphere, great music, brilliant performances, particularly  by Patricia Jessel and Valentine Dyall. 

I used to know a guy in London -- Terry Sartain -- who had a very small part in the film.  He was in the opening sequence. Boy, was I impressed by that credential, when I met him back in the late 1970s! 

horrorhotel4.jpg

Valentine Dyall, Patricia Jessel in The City of the Dead

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3 minutes ago, Swithin said:

I didn't see the negative review here. I think The City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) is one of the great horror films.

I didn't leave the negative review (I like the movie), but I was wondering if you'd been reading the "I Just Watched" thread, where someone else posted their displeasure. I fully expected you to respond after I left my short review for The Vulture a few days ago!

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Just now, LawrenceA said:

I didn't leave the negative review (I like the movie), but I was wondering if you'd been reading the "I Just Watched" thread, where someone else posted their displeasure. I fully expected you to respond after I left my short review for The Vulture a few days ago!

I will go there now. I've always been fascinated by Akim Tamiroff's talons!

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14 hours ago, Swithin said:

I didn't see the negative review here. I think The City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) is one of the great horror films. Captivating, literate story, creepy, moody atmosphere, great music, brilliant performances, particularly  by Patricia Jessel and Valentine Dyall. 

I used to know a guy in London -- Terry Sartain -- who had a very small part in the film.  He was in the opening sequence. Boy, was I impressed by that credential, when I met him back in the late 1970s! 

horrorhotel4.jpg

Valentine Dyall, Patricia Jessel in The City of the Dead

How wonderful that you personally knew someone who was a part of this film. So glad to see there are other fans of this film also.

The review to which I referred, as I recall was detailing how "boring" the film was and that the performances were "hammy". Since I often believe that what one gets out of film might be dependent on what one brings to the film I felt compelled to give the film an alternative review. Thank you for mentioning Valentine Dyall, who was marvelous also and one can only regret that Patricia Jessel died at a young age, as I found her incredibly talented and a kind of satanic Cloris Leachman on steroids. If you liked this film I'm wondering if you also have seen "The Night of the Eagle" which has a similar theme of a professor, a college setting and evil supernatural forces at work and stars also the Mad Nun from Black Narcissus.

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4 hours ago, GordonCole said:

 If you liked this film I'm wondering if you also have seen "The Night of the Eagle" which has a similar theme of a professor, a college setting and evil supernatural forces at work and stars also the Mad Nun from Black Narcissus.

Yes, I've seen and liked Night of the Eagle. It used to be on television a lot when I was a kid. As you probably know, it was re-titled Burn, Witch, Burn in America. Based on the story The Conjure Wife, which also inspired Weird Woman and another film as well.

 

 

 

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30 minutes ago, Swithin said:

Yes, I've seen and liked Night of the Eagle. It used to be on television a lot when I was a kid. As you probably know, it was re-titled Burn, Witch, Burn in America. Based on the story The Conjure Wife, which also inspired Weird Woman and another film as well.

 

 

 

I knew too it was from the story, Conjure Wife but thanks for mentioning it since now I know you know it too, and I'm wondering if you are also a fan of writer Fritz Leiber? During my teen years I loved reading his tales along with those of Robert Howard and others, and if I see his name on any tv episode I know I am in for a good ride. It's funny that The Night of the Eagle is a classy film being that good old Sam Arkoff produced it. Great cast with Peter Wyngarde, Margaret Johnston, and as I said Kathleen Byron. The one surprise I had when I first saw it, was I could not imagine the perky, clean cut and wholesome Janet Blair in anything dealing with the occult, but she performed admirably and using her a bit reminded me of the concept of Hitchcock when he put Cary Grant out in the open in daylight in danger in North by Northwest, instead of using the typical darkly shot night scene to instill fear in the audience. In some ways, using Blair instead of someone like Barbara Steele or a more cerebrally dark actress was genius. Thank goodness they did not have Sid Caesar though play the professor. Thanks, Swithin.

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22 minutes ago, GordonCole said:

Good one and you know the guy was operating with only one eye too, so he probably couldn't see the ghosts either.

(I'm afraid I haven't read any Fritz Leiber, though I've enjoyed his father's performances as an actor in classic films.)

I saw Valentine Dyall on stage once, at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1975. Dyall played Dr. Rance (much less dignified than Jethrow Keane)  in the first revival of Joe Orton's farce, What the Butler Saw. He was great, playing one of the great comedy characters, a mad, over-the-top psychiatrist. Dr. Rance is investigating a psychiatric clinic. Here's a description of the character of Dr. Rance in the play, from Wikipedia. Imagine Dyall playing this role:

"Dr. Prentice's clinic is also faced with a government inspection, led by Dr. Rance, which reveals the chaos in the clinic. Dr. Rance talks about how he will use the situation to develop a new book: "The final chapters of my book are knitting together: incest, bug gery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac."

What_the_Butler_Saw_Royal_Court_1975.jpg

 

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On 1/8/2019 at 5:49 PM, Swithin said:

(I'm afraid I haven't read any Fritz Leiber, though I've enjoyed his father's performances as an actor in classic films.)

I saw Valentine Dyall on stage once, at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1975. Dyall played Dr. Rance (much less dignified than Jethrow Keane)  in the first revival of Joe Orton's farce, What the Butler Saw. He was great, playing one of the great comedy characters, a mad, over-the-top psychiatrist. Dr. Rance is investigating a psychiatric clinic. Here's a description of the character of Dr. Rance in the play, from Wikipedia. Imagine Dyall playing this role:

"Dr. Prentice's clinic is also faced with a government inspection, led by Dr. Rance, which reveals the chaos in the clinic. Dr. Rance talks about how he will use the situation to develop a new book: "The final chapters of my book are knitting together: incest, bug gery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac."

What_the_Butler_Saw_Royal_Court_1975.jpg

 

Swithin, I must say that while reading your posts I often wish I were Professor Monserrat as played by Boris Karloff in the Michael Reeves' film, The Sorcerers, for then I could enter your mind with his apparatus and vicariously enjoy all the amazing cultural experiences to which you have been privy. I so envy so many of them but I also so want to thank you for sharing them with us. Would love to have seen Valentine Dyall in that Joe Orton play. Thanks for your insights.

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On 1/8/2019 at 5:00 PM, Swithin said:

Yes, I've seen and liked Night of the Eagle. It used to be on television a lot when I was a kid. As you probably know, it was re-titled Burn, Witch, Burn in America. Based on the story The Conjure Wife, which also inspired Weird Woman and another film as well.

 

 

 

Finally remembered the film whose title I could not remember. It was La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono directed by Pupi Avati from the 1970's. Another excellent and mostly obscure horror film with a theme similar in some ways to Don't Look Now in concept and Peeping Tom in motive. The theme of the Saint Sebastian fresco being rehabbed would have also been interesting if left to the hands of Bava or Argento but Avati handles it masterfully with many shocks and atmospheric touches that make it above most normal Giallo.

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