The City of the Dead
the city of the dead | john llewellyn moxey | george baxt | patricia jessel | dennis lotis | christopher lee | milton subotsky | witch | witches | witchcraft | coven | history | mystery | thriller | united kingdom | tom naylor | betta st. john | venetia stevenson
Film: The City of the Dead
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Writer: George Baxt and Milton Subotsky
Starring: Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis and Christopher Lee
This is a movie that when I first heard about it was due to the fact that it was on a combo pack with Carnival of Souls from 1962 and then there was another one that also had 2 other movies on it. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that it must be in public domain so they could easily add it. I wasn’t the biggest fan after the first viewing, but I wanted to watch it with a bit more of a critical eye. Seeing that this is from 1960, I made it for my Journey through the Aughts segment. The synopsis here is a young college student arrives in a sleepy Massachusetts town to research witchcraft. During her stay, at an eerie inn, she discovers a startling secret about the town and its inhabitants.
Now we start this movie back in 1692. An angry mob in the village of Whitewood is coming for Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel). She is accused of killing Abigail Adams. Elizabeth calls out to Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) for help. He denies being a part of her coven and she is burned for witchcraft. While this is happening, we see that Jethrow is lying and says a prayer to Satan to help her.
The movie then takes us into the present where everything we’ve seen is being told to a class by Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). This is a weird setting for it though as it appears to be in his office and not a classroom. It could be few students take this class so that makes sense. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is really interested in what he is saying where her boyfriend of Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor) isn’t so much. She scolds him and Alan asks her to stay after class. Nan informs him that she wants her term paper to be the best it can be and for the upcoming break, she wants to go to the smallest and oldest town she can find to do more research. He directs her to the Raven’s Inn in the village of Whitewood. She thanks him and states that is where she will go.
This annoys Bill and her brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) doesn’t think it is the best idea. She is bullheaded and still goes. Richard is also a professor at this school. In order for her to leave, she does promise that she will attend Sue’s (Maxine Holden) birthday party in 2 weeks.
This village of Whitewood is in the middle of nowhere. It is eerie too and it appears to hidden in mist. On her way, she is stopped by a hitchhiker that turns out to be Jethrow. When she arrives in the village, he disappears. Nan first goes to the Raven’s Inn where she sees a plaque commemorating the execution of Elizabeth Selwyn. Nan rings the bell to meet the woman running the inn, Mrs. Newless (Jessel). She is told it is all booked up, but by dropping the name of Professor Driscoll, she is given a room. Nan gets a bad feeling when she explores the village. Reverend Russell (Norman MacOwan) bars her way into the church, but she gets a nicer introduction from his granddaughter Patricia (Betta St. John).
Nan hears strange things coming from the cellar under her room. Mrs. Newless tries to put her fears at ease, but something horrifying happens to her which draws the attention of Richard and Bill to the village. Patricia also knows there is something going on here with this village.
That’s where I’m going to leave my recap here. This is an interesting movie though for sure. What struck me is that it is interesting that this came out the same year as Black Sunday from Mario Bava. They have a very similar beginning with just this one isn’t as violent. Also an interesting aspect is this is it is an early Amicus film, but at the time they were under the name of Vulcan Productions.
With that out of the way, I really like some of the elements that we’re playing with here. I like the idea of seeing this witch burned at the stake and then cursing this village. There are suspicions from the beginning of getting there that Elizabeth and Mrs. Newless are either the same person or the latter is reincarnated. Jethrow could also be a specter that helps lead those to sacrifice or again, something similar to what we get with Elizabeth/Mrs. Newless. There are just some cool reveals for sure.
There’s a bit of warning with this movie as well. Nan is told by all those around her to not look into what she is. There is a bit of misogyny with this in my opinion, but they’re also not wrong. It is that motif that messing with these forces something bad can happen to you. I also like the idea that we’re living in a modern world. Richard and Bill both reject it and the former is an educated man of science where Bill is a modern man that only believes what he can see and is accepted by society. On the other hand, you have Alan who does believe, but there’s a bit more with him. Patricia falls into an interesting camp. Her family is from Whitewood, but she’s experienced the outside world. She deals in books though where the history is important to her. She doesn’t necessarily believe, but she’s seen strange things.
Aside from these aspects of the story, I also really like most of the soundtrack. We get this creepy chanting that is with the opening credits and we get it throughout the village of Whitewood. The music behind it match well and the chanting just makes it that much creepier for me. There is a bit of music in the movie that I don’t necessarily think fits, but they don’t use it all that much. We also get an unnerving scene when Nan comes out to join the party at the inn, but when she opens her door, it stops. I was a fan of that as well.
Next I think that I’ll go to the acting, which is a bit weird for me. There are quite a few people who compare this to Psycho with some of the things that happen. I can see what they’re getting at, but they were in production at similar times. Lotis gets introduced pretty early on, but he disappears until the middle half of the movie. There’s something about him that just rubs me the wrong way as our hero. I think him and Naylor give off a bit of misogyny while still be given as our heroes. Richard supposed to be there looking for his sister, but seems more interested in Patricia. Stevenson feels like our star, but there is something that happens to her within the first third of the movie. She was good aside from that and we get to see her in her underwear which wasn’t bad at all. Lee doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he’s always good. Jessel is probably one of the best performances for sure. There’s just something creepy about her. The same could be said for Dyall and MacOwan. St. John and the rest of the cast do round this out for were needed in my opinion.
The last things that I’ll go over are the atmosphere, effects and cinematography. For the effects, we really don’t get a lot of them. This movie just doesn’t show things which are fine. We know what they’re doing and it is somewhat brutal to be honest in the grand scheme. What this movie does really well is the atmosphere. This village is covered in mist that makes it eerie. I really don’t like that no one points it out really. The cinematography is fine but there is really a lot that I could tell was done on sets.
With that said, this movie does some really good things, but I feel that it is just lacking something to really bring it together. I love the setting of New England where an actual witch was executed and that the village is now cursed. The setting is also good and the atmosphere really works especially with the creepy parts of the soundtrack. I think that for the most part the acting from the villains is fine, I just have some issues with our heroes. That is more of the time so it is hard to fault the movie. The movie really just is a bit boring overall despite its 75 minute runtime for whatever reason. I still enjoy it as a movie that really helps to pave the way for witch movies along with Black Sunday. I still find this to be an above average movie overall, moving it up just slightly from where I was last time.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10