Magic Lantern (VCI)
Cast: Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis
Extras: Commentary Track, Interviews, Photo Gallery, Talent Files, Trailer
Quick question, has there ever been a film that was renamed for American distribution in which the new name actually improved upon the original? I didn’t think so. Such is the case with 1960’s "The City of the Dead, " an exquisitely crafted horror film that American audiences remember as "Horror Hotel." "Horror Hotel?" Not a name to conjure images of Lovecraftian horror set among a misty and mysterious small town in Massachusetts, now is it?.
The film was previously released on DVD by Elite under the "Horror Hotel" title but fans of classic horror along the lines of Hammer’s finest are in for a real treat with this new special edition DVD from VCI Entertainment. "The City of the Dead" is one of those films that was originally thought to be something of a throw-away piece but has instead blossomed into a true classic of the genre — albeit one that few have heard of and even fewer have had the opportunity to view in pristine condition — until now.
The film opens in the classroom of history professor Alan Driscoll. One of the students in his seminar on the history of witchcraft is the eager and beautiful Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). About to embark on a vacation with her brother, Driscoll’s fellow professor Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), Nan instead decides to set off on her own to do research for her senior paper on New England witchcraft. The ever helpful Driscoll suggests that she visit Whitewood, the small town in which notorious witch Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake in 1692 while placing a curse on the village and swearing eternal loyalty to Lucifer.
Nan sets off for Whitewood and as the mist grows ever thicker she happens upon a mysterious hitchhiker who shows her the way to the town. Once there, she takes a room at the Raven’s Inn where the proprietress, Mrs. Newlis (Patricia Jessel), is only too happy to oblige once Professor Driscoll’s name is mentioned.
Nan goes for a short stroll through town where she happens upon a handful of people who only stop and stare at her. She approaches the old, abandoned church where the pastor, Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan), warns her away and she finds herself in the antique store run by the pastor’s lovely granddaughter, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), who has just returned to town after the passing of her grandmother.
Borrowing an old book on witchcraft from the store, Nan returns to her room at the inn where she does some research before Mrs. Newlis coaxes her out to join the swinging party going on in the common room.
It seems that some guests have recently arrived from out of town and little does Nan suspect that they are there to celebrate two upcoming black holidays — Candlemas Eve and the Witches’ Sabbath. It seems that no dark party is complete without the sacrifice of a beautiful young woman and, as luck would have it, there just so happen to be a couple of gals who fit that description in town at that very moment.
I don’t want to give away the rest of the story — not that it’s all that surprising — so I’ll stop here.
"The City of the Dead" was the first feature film directed by John Moxey and he was smart enough to let the experienced members of his cast and crew carry the load. Christopher Lee delivers his usual excellent performance as does Patricia Russell. The rest of the cast is decent enough and the only role that falls somewhat flat is that of Nan’s boyfriend, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor). In addition, cinematographer Desmond Dickinson was given a free hand to create an atmosphere of dark foreboding that is the real strong point of this film. The artful use of lighting, shadows, and mist combines to make this one of the finest black and white film compositions I’ve seen.
The story itself is also a winner. "The City of the Dead" explores the rituals and history of witchcraft without ever once coming across as phony or exploitative. Every line is delivered with firm conviction and the story is logically laid-out from beginning to end.
This new DVD delivers the film in its fully uncut British form restoring a few minutes of the witch burning at the stake as well as the very dark and foreboding opening credits.
"The City of the Dead" is presented in its original 1.66:1 <$PS,widescreen> format and the new transfer is <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced. This restoration was created from original film elements found at the British Film Institute and the end results of the hard work put into this release are outstanding. The image is nice and sharp with no glaring over-enhancement in evidence. The stunning black and white photography is greatly aided by the accurate black levels and contrast which provide fine detail throughout a film that is very dark in tone. In addition, no glaring blemishes or defects are evident on the print resulting in an image that is probably more pristine that it was upon its initial theatrical showing.
Audio is a very serviceable <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 mono mix that is very clear. Dialogue is always easily understood and is never overwhelmed by the sound effects or musical score. The one mark against the film has to be its score as it’s a bit too 1960s in flavor to effectively evoke feelings of dread and horror. In fact, the snippets of music that accompany most of the real action sound a lot like the soundtrack from the old "Batman" television series. Talk about being pulled out of the moment. Still, the audio is more than serviceable and I can’t fault the creators of the film for not realizing that their jazzy score wouldn’t hold up so well after 40 years.
VCI has really gone all out on this release and the DVD is loaded with engaging bonus features. First up are two <$commentary,commentary track>s, one with director John Moxey and the other with Christopher Lee. Moxey offers up a wealth of information on the technical aspects of the filming and he’s clearly still very enthusiastic about his first directorial effort. He has nothing but good things to say about his cast and crew and his jovial nature makes this an engaging and enjoyable listening experience.
Christopher Lee’s commentary is even more informative and entertaining as he brings a lifetime of experience and knowledge to the discussion. Over the course of hundreds of horror films Lee has garnered a real education on the history of the black arts and he is able to frame "The City of the Dead" within its very real historical roots. In addition, he’s never one to shy away from delivering the dirt and, although his little asides are never done in a spiteful manner, Lee manages to bring some real humor and fun to the proceedings.
Next up are interviews with Christopher Lee, John Moxey, and Venetia Stevenson. The piece with Lee runs for about 45 minutes and is worth the price of admission alone for fans of his vast body of work. While ostensibly a series of recollections about "The City of the Dead," Lee is never shy about wandering off topic and discussing the many great people he’s worked with and the many classic films he’s been involved with over the course of his long career.
The John Moxey interview runs for 26 minutes and only reinforces the impression gleaned from his <$commentary,commentary track> that the director is a delightful and engaging speaker. Once again he delves into the technical aspects needed to set the mood for a horror film and discusses the sheer luck that brought him a project so loaded with talent.
Perhaps the most interesting interview is that with Venetia Stevenson. This 19-minute piece offers up a few comments on the film itself but Stevenson spends the bulk of the time talking about her life after acting and her childhood as the daughter of famed director and Disney stalwart, Robert Stevenson. It’s rare that we ever get a chance to hear from those who opt out of the acting business after so few films so it’s kind of nice to learn that, yes, there is life beyond Hollywood.
Next up is the film’s original American theatrical trailer. For some odd reason, the British title is the one that appears on this trailer which confused me at first.
Rounding out the extras are an animated photo gallery which runs for 3 and a half minutes and very good talent files for the main cast and crew.
Fans of intelligent horror films that rely on suspense built through a sensible story and fine acting rather than flat-out gore are sure to enjoy "The City of the Dead." While not as flashy as most of its contemporary Hammer films (heck, there’s only one very brief cheesecake shot and no blood whatsoever), the movie still has that gothic feel that fans of the genre love. Filmed entirely on sets at England’s Shepperton Studios, the movie still manages to convey the look and feel of a creepy New England town.
This is a top-notch story and this new DVD from VCI is sure to reel in a hole cadre of new fans. Featuring pristine video and audio and a whole host of informative extras, "The City of the Dead" stands as the definitive edition of that movie and as one of the finest offerings of classic horror to appear on DVD. The film and DVD both come very highly recommended.