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Film / City of the Dead

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The City of the Dead is a 1960 British horror film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey and starring Christopher Lee.

Professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) teaches the history of witchcraft at a Chicago university. He encourages his star student, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), to take a field trip to the sleepy village of Whitewood, Massachusetts, the site of a famous 17th-century witch burning. Both Nan's skeptical brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her fiancé Bill (Tom Naylor) try to dissuade her from going, but her curiosity proves too powerful. After arriving in Whitewood, Nan finds accommodation at the Raven's Inn hotel, run by Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), and plunges headlong into the town's satanic history. Little does she realize that she has been lured to Whitewood for a very sinister purpose.

Compare with The Wicker Man (1973), another Folk Horror film starring Christopher Lee about a Town with a Dark Secret.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Professor Driscoll seems quite amiable at first, if a bit intense about his specialty, witchcraft.
  • Alternate DVD Commentary: In 2014 the film was the subject of a RiffTrax commentary featuring Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.
  • Anyone Can Die: Nan who is established as the protagonist is murdered at the halfway mark. Only her brother Dick and her acquaintance Pat survive the film.
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Jethrow Keane's specialty is to be picked up, provide some expository conversation, and then vanish from the passenger seat.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Professor Driscoll to Nan.
  • Blind Seer: Satan may have robbed the Reverend of his earthly sight, but he sees clearly what is happening in Whitewood.
  • Burn the Witch!: Whitewood falls under a curse after its inhabitants burn a witch. Ironically the film was made in Europe (where witch burning did happen) but takes place in America (where it did notnote ).
  • Cassandra Truth: Neither Nan nor Pat takes the Reverend's warnings seriously.
    • Nan and Tom also ignore the gas station attendant's warnings about Whitewood.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted. Christianity in Whitewood is some unspecified form of Protestantism, in keeping with the "Old New England" setting.
  • Co-Dragons: Professor Driscoll and Jethrow Keane both serve Elizabeth Selwyn. The former leads potential sacrifices to the coven; the latter kills for her when she doesn't want to get her hands dirty and also had a hand in turning Whitewood into Unholy Ground.
  • Creepy Gas-Station Attendant: Nan stops at a remote gas station on a fog-shrouded road to ask for directions to Whitewood. The gas station attendant warns her that god-fearing folk don't go there, but gives her directions nonetheless.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: If only Nan had been less inquisitive, none of this would have happened.
  • Cute Bookworm: Nan, Professor Driscoll's star student. Also Pat, the local librarian in Whitewood.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: Barlow and Maitland arrive much too late to save Nan. However, they arrive just in time to save Pat.
  • Cobweb Jungle: The underground passage is full of theatrical wall-to-wall cobwebs.
  • Creepy Cemetery: Complete with fog and big crooked tombstones.
  • Damsel in Distress: Not one but two.
  • Dead Animal Warning: On returning to her room after the dancers disappear, Nan finds a dead bird on her bed: impaled by a silver pin shaped like an arrow. Later, Patricia finds one and her grandfather tells her it the mark of the witches.
  • Dead Star Walking: Nan Barlow seems to be the protagonist for the first thirty minutes or so.
  • Deal with the Devil: Elizabeth Selwyn made a deal with Satan for eternal life.
  • Decoy Protagonist: At first, Nan seems to be the main character. After she is killed, this status passes to her brother.
  • Determinator: Maitland. Even with a dagger lodged in his back, he manages to lift a big wooden cross and carry it around.
  • Dutch Angle: Used sparingly: once near the end when Dick Barlow leaves the inn and again with closeups of members of the coven as they try to sacrifice Pat Russell.
  • Eldritch Location: Whitewood is an Unholy Ground covered in an unnatural fog.
  • Evil Laugh: Elizabeth Selwyn/ Mrs. Newless.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Tom Maitland's car bursts into flames after he crashes it.
  • Evil Matriarch: In Whitewood, Mrs. Newless calls the shots.
  • Fanservice: A brief, unexpected example occurs when Nan Barlow removes her modest housecoat to reveal risque, cabaret-esque lingerie.
  • Folk Horror: Dealing with black magic worship in a small town in New England.
  • Ghost Butler: While Nan is trying to pry open the locked trapdoor, a key helpfully appears, hanging from the window treatment and tapping against the glass. Nan takes the Schmuck Bait without a second thought.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Nan goes to Whitewood determined to find proof that witchcraft is real, and she certainly finds it.
  • Good Shepherd: The Reverend Russell, although he seems less interested in saving souls than in stubbornly preserving the sanctity of his church building (probably because the townspeople are a lost cause).
  • Great Big Book of Everything: A Treatise On Devil Worship In New England, which perfectly satisfies Nan's curiosity.
  • Hell Hotel: The alternate title of this film is Horror Hotel, and it's quite appropriate. The Raven's Inn is not a very hospitable place.
  • Hidden Depths: Tom Maitland comes across as childish at first when he heckles Professor Driscoll and whines about Nan wanting to go away for a couple of weeks to do research. Yet he saves Pat from being sacrificed and destroys the coven (while dying no less).
  • Hollywood Satanism: The witch coven offers human sacrifices to the Devil — including children — in exchange for immortality.
  • Holy Burns Evil: The cross-shaped gravemarker wielded by Tom Maitland sets the coven on fire. Specifically, the shadow it casts.
  • Hot Witch: "Hot" may be pushing it, but Elizabeth Selwyn is reasonably attractive.
  • Human Sacrifice: The witches must sacrifice two women every year to keep the coven in good standing with Satan.
  • Immune to Bullets: Professor Driscoll.
  • Kick the Dog: Mrs. Newless's cruel treatment of the mute Lottie.
  • Little Black Dress: Mrs. Newless always wears black, which helps make her seem off.
  • Lovecraft Country: Whitewood, Massachusetts - with its richly-drawn history and sinister atmosphere - very much feels like one of H. P. Lovecraft's own eerie New English towns.
  • Market-Based Title: Released in the U.S. as Horror Hotel.
  • Match Cut: The knife about to plunge into Nan's chest is echoed by the knife cutting a birthday cake in the next scene.
  • Ominous Fog: VERY copiously used, to the point of covering the ground in opaque knee-high clouds.
  • Ominous Chanting: During the Candlemas Eve festivities.
  • Only Shop in Town: Pat has just opened up a shop in a tiny, virtually deserted town that hardly ever receives visitors.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Both Christopher Lee and Dennis Lotis slip out of their American accents more than once.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse: Poor Lottie.
  • The Pollyanna: Nan responds to the most sinister and menacing things with enthusiastic fascination.
  • Real After All: After mocking belief in the supernatural, the skeptics are eventually confronted by a real-life witches' Sabbath.
  • Religion is Magic: Especially the cross that shoots Jesus-lightning at the witches.
  • Religious Horror: The Big Bad is Satan, and the witches are defeated by the power of Christian symbols.
  • Scare Chord
  • Scenecut: The film cuts from the coven conducting a Human Sacrifice with the sacrificial dagger descending on Nan to Sue cutting the cake at her birthday party.
  • Schmuck Bait: A key magically appears, allowing Nan to unlock a trap door and descend into a cobwebby crypt. Nothing suspicious about that.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Not drawn attention to but you'll notice Newless is Selwyn spelled backwards with a vowel changed to make an alternate name. She is only ever called Mrs Newless so as to conceal her first name Elizabeth.
  • Secret Underground Passage: A tunnel leads conveniently from Nan's hotel room to the stone altar where she is to be sacrificed.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Barlow and Maitland when it comes to witchcraft.
  • Slashers Prefer Blondes: Blonde Nan is killed by the witches. Brunette Pat survives. What's more is that blond Maitland dies and brunet Richard survives.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: There's a jazzy score over certain scenes that's strangely at odds with the spooky atmosphere.
  • Stupid Evil: Why did they leave that cross-shaped tombstone sitting around in the Unholy Ground cemetery where they make human sacrifices? Since Holy Burns Evil maybe they couldn't move it.
  • Three-Wall Set: Every scene was filmed on a soundstage, even "exterior" shots of Whitewood and the forest.
  • Thriving Ghost Town: Whitewood seems to have about twelve residents, tops. We're also told most of the coven only comes in for the Sabbath, so it may be as low as five.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: In an attempt to stop Bill, Elizabeth throws her large sacrificial dagger the length of the graveyard and manages to nail him squarely in the middle of his back.
  • Token Good Teammate: Lottie seems to be the only employee at the Raven's Inn who is not a murderous witch.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Whitewood. Of course the secret is not necessarily that witchcraft was practiced there - which everyone knows about - but that they still regularly sacrifice people.
  • Unholy Ground: The town of Whitewood, on account of its history of witch-burnings.
  • Villain Teleportation: The witches will do this as soon as your back is turned.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Maitland is supposed to be an American, but sometimes he sounds like an ESL student.
  • Wicked Cultured: Professor Driscoll.
  • Wizards Live Longer: The devil brings the burned witches back to life and grants them eternal life in exchange for sacrificing young girls twice a year.