” The basis of fairy tale is in reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.”-Professor Alan Driscoll
“Religion. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” – Ambrose Bierce
“Religious superstition consists in the belief that the sacrifices, often of human lives, made to the imaginary being are essential, and that men may and should be brought to that state of mind by all methods, not excluding violence.”- Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy
“Horror Hotel, next to the graveyard”
Horror Hotel (US) or The City of the Dead (British) (1960) is directed by John Llewellyn Moxey who eventually emigrated to America and became in my opinion one of THE best directors of fantasy, horror and suspense films made for television. (The House That Would Not Die 1970, The Night Stalker 1972, A Taste of Evil 1971, Home For the Holidays 1972, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence 1974, Where Have All The People Gone 1974, Conspiracy of Terror 1975 once again about a secret cult of devil worshipers this time in the suburbs of California, Nightmare in Badham County 1976, Killjoy 1981 and Desire, The Vampire 1982 not to mention contributing to numerous outstanding television series, and other films too many to list here.)
With a screenplay by George Baxt (The Shadow of the Cat 1961, Strangler’s Web 1965, Vampire Circus 1972 (uncredited) and his really awful mess, Horror of Snape Island 1972) he was also the scenarist on Sidney Hayer’s Circus of Horrors (1959) Baxt went on to do another witchcraft themed film co-scripted with prolific writers Richard Matheson’s (The Legend of Hell House 1973, Trilogy of Terror 1975) and Charles Beaumont’s (The Intruder 1962 , Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death 1965) The other screenplay was based on Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife , which turned into yet another film directed by Sidney Hayer, and was an equally moody and unnerving piece in the trope of black magic themed films entitled Night of the Eagle or it’s alternative title best known as Burn Witch Burn (1961)
Horror Hotel or City of the Dead is also a story co-scripted by Milton Subotsky an American émigré who relocated to England and eventually took over as the head founder of Amicus the only true rival to Hammer Studios Gothic series of films at the time. Horror Hotel was their first film made by the company then called Vulcan Productions. Subotsky was also the uncredited producer on the film. Released in the states with the title Horror Hotel the film used the inane catch phrase “Just Ring For Doom Service” which is unfortunate as it downplays the truly profound artistic quality of the film’s visual narrative. The film also marks the first appearance of Christopher Lee in the Satanic Cinema genre. Then Lee appeared in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s quite interesting occult themed sequence rather than Hitch’s usual mystery methodology, an episode entitled, The Sign of Satan (released May 8, 1964 from Season 2 episode 27) where Christopher Lee plays the mysterious foreign actor Karl Jorla in a episode that also dealt with devil worship.
Horror Hotel was filmed on a sound stage in England, with an all British cast, yet the plot was set in an obscure village in America’s provincial Massachusetts for it’s historical relationship to the Salem Witch Trials and the mystique of the witchcraft frenzy that was so pervasive during the Puritanical 17th Century.
With a haunting bit of cinematography by Desmond Dickinson (Olivier’s Hamlet 1948, Horrors of the Black Museum 1959, the noir classic The Frightened City 1961, A Study in Terror 1965, one of my guilty pleasures which is Beast in the Cellar 1970, Who Slew Auntie Roo 1972 with my one of my favs Shelley Winters and Beware My Brethren 1972) and art direction by John Blezard and Original music by Douglas Gamley.
The cast includes Christopher Lee as Professor of Demonology Alan Driscoll, Dennis Lotis as Richard Barlow and Venetia Stevenson as avid student Nan Barlow. Interestingly enough, it’s quite shocking that the script actually kills off the supposed heroine Nan within the first 30 minutes of the film, much like Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960.
Patricia Jessel is the imposing Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs.Newlis an obvious anagram for the 300 year old witch much like name switcheroo used by Sidney Blackmer’s Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby 1968. Tom Naylor plays Bill Maitland Nan’s prowess boyfriend. Betta St. John is Patricia Russell the granddaughter of the blind Reverend Russell played by Norman Macowan. Ann Beach has an impish sort of Patty Duke like quality to her as the poor mute Lottie a slave under Mrs. Newlis’ iron grip and Valentine Dyall (love him as Dudley the caretaker ‘all you city people’ in Robert Wise’s The Haunting ’62) plays Reverend Jethrow Keane also resurrected from those by gone days of witch burnings.
I’m not sure why this absolute gem has been so overlooked, when it’s still such a genuinely frightening and effectively creepy contribution to the classic horror genre. It’s moody and saturated with an unearthly fog that blankets the town and exudes an impending sense of doom and dread. The film is almost impressionistic with it’s tonality of the macabre which permeates the landscape with the undead specters walking amidst the fog soaked night, and we as spectators know of the looming arcane rites of the ritualistic blood sacrifices held by ambiguous figures in monkish robes.
The camera work is startling at times, and surprisingly cerebral for a low budget film, as in the opening sequence when they are executing Elizabeth Selwyn, the camera closes in tightly on several grotesquely puritanical, pious and unrelentingly exaggerated expressions of hostility and hypocrisy as the villagers call out with their blood lust to burn the witch, their fever for punishment, lacks any godliness, as they are framed more hideous than Elizabeth Selwyn who is tied to a stake and set on fire. Only a quick glance at a little girl’s face read in panic as Selwyn evokes the power of Satan and a darkness washes over the villagers like a paint stroke of black light. The use of shadow is almost reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s thoughtful psychological terror plays of the 40s, (Cat People 1942, I Walked With A Zombie 1943, noir classic Out of the Past 1947 and Curse of the Demon 1957) While not in the same league as the master of shadow and light the great Val Lewton or Tourneur, there are some elements with the added sphere of paranoia that creates an atmosphere filled with uncanny dread and unknowable spaces and devilish premeditation, that evokes some of the same type of moodiness.
Again, not being hindered by the restraints of a small budget, the film appears as a beautifully eerie Lovecraftian fable, filled with an entire village inhabited by listless cult followers dedicated to the worship of Satan. They haunt the streets swathed in ritual robes shrouded in shadows and fog, wandering through swirling mists, and an ominous sweep of fog that obscures these undead spirits of the night, soulless, dressed in robes or outdated clothing. The entire village is vexed by black magic reigned over by the resurrected witch Elizabeth Selwyn who was burned at the stake more than 300 years before in 1692. While it’s obvious that the degenerating, decomposing village of Whitewood is a sparsely designed set on a humble sound stage, John Llewellyn Moxey manages to infuse this little city of the dead with a very disquieting ambiance. Dickinson lights the inhabitants of Whitewood and the hazy mysterious village itself using very enigmatic black and white compositions.
The film opens as the fog shrouded village of Whitewood is at first an empty frame consumed within a smokey cloud of air except for a giant iron fire pit blazing to the left of screen. Like specters emerging through the deathly fog, several villagers move closer into focus until they are upon us in mid screen. They are thirsty for the blood of the declared witch Elizabeth Selwyn who has brought about the death of Abigail Adams. They decree that she should be put to death as a witch, and so they converge on her little cottage, dragging her out and tying her to a large wooden stake. As she faces her accusers it seems as if she is emitting a hissing sound like a serpent. A pilgrim woman slowly grinds out the words, “Wiittcch!!!!“ as Elizabeth Selwyn contemptuously spits on her.
The elders and the crowd of villagers scream out for her death. To burn the witch. The pyre is set on fire, but as she becomes engulfed in the purifying flames, she declares her devotion to Satan. Meanwhile Jethrow Keane secretly still an acolyte of Elizabeth pretends to deny that he has consorted with the witch, privately begging “Help her Lucifer, Help Her.” As the fevered villagers watch Elizabeth burn, she cackles and laughs her unspoken vow to come back and wreak revenge on the descendants of Whitewood. She has made a pact with the devil for eternal life in exchange for providing him with human sacrifices, which she manages to procure by luring unsuspecting visitors to her rustic Raven’s Inn.
It’s modern day… the village is now left in desolation and gripped in an eerie pal that hangs over everything with it’s deathly fog. Now 1960 Professor of Demonology Alan Driscoll is relating the story of Elizabeth Selwyn, demonstratively narrating to his class the lurid story, ending with the same chant the villagers had been shouting, “Burn Witch Burn, Burn Witch Burn…” An intense look occupies his deep and darkly riveting eyes. While most of the class is bored and distracted, Nan who is consumed with the legend of witchcraft and Elizabeth Selwyn’s legacy, stays after class to continue talking to Professor Driscoll, much to the dismay of her hunky boyfriend Bill.
Nan looking for some good material for her thesis asks Driscoll for some guidance. He informs Nan in a very grim manner that the myth of human sacrifice isn’t just a story, that it still exists, and that it is said that Elizabeth Selwyn still walks the murky streets of Whitewood. So Professor Driscoll sends Nan Barlow to Whitewood, Massachusetts to conduct her research about the local prevailing myth that witchcraft is alive and well and still being practiced by a coven in the decaying old New England village. Nan goes willingly to uncover the truth behind the rumors of sightings of Elizabeth Selwyn believed to have come back from the dead.
Professor Driscoll is not just an avid academic of the occult, he is also an ancestor of Whitewood and a practicing Warlock in cahoots with Elizabeth Selwyn now having taken the name of Mrs.Newlis who has in fact been resurrected from the grave and now runs the claustrophobic and infernal Raven’s Inn, equip with trap door that leads to the subterranean primitive altar where blood sacrifices are held, and shadowy figures come to dance cheek to cheek to smokey jazz music by the flickering light of the fireplace at the Raven’s Inn.
Of course Nan’s brother a scientist, is not thrilled with Nan going on a witch hunt, but thinks that she should be allowed to pursue her academic dream. However boyfriend Bill is not happy at all by the news that his girlfriend is about to take a road trip to some small village out of the way chasing ridiculous nonsensical theories.
Nan gets in the car and begins to drive. Passing by a gas station she asks if she’s headed in the right direction, and of course the attendant gives a worried look when she tells him that her destination is the town of Whitewood.