The City of the Dead opens in a small, fog-shrouded village. The locals have gathered to burn Elizabeth Selwyn for the crime of witchcraft.1 As the flames consume her, Elizabeth pledges her soul to Lucifer in exchange for eternal life. The bloodthirsty villagers drown her out, chanting “Burn witch, burn!”
Smash-cut to an extreme close-up of Christopher Lee repeating the same line. It’s present day. Lee plays Alan Driscoll, a college professor lecturing a group of young students on the history of witchcraft. In attendance are our heroine, Nan, and her boyfriend Bill. Nan sits in rapt attention, shushing Bill’s snide comments. It’s clear Bill took the course just to hit on Nan. It’s less clear what she sees in him.2
After the lecture, Nan approaches Professor Driscoll. Nan wants to use her upcoming winter break to write a thesis on witchcraft in New England, but feels she needs some first-hand research. She plans to get a room in the smallest, oldest town in New England she can find. There she’ll comb through the town hall records, recheck the libraries, and interview the puritan descendants. Impressed by her enthusiasm, Driscoll suggests she visit his hometown, a small New England village called Whitewood. Nan agrees.
Bill, who’d hoped Nan would spend the break with him, tries to dissuade her, but Nan remains resolute.
Before long, Nan’s pulling up to a desolate filling station in the dead of night asking for directions to Whitewood. The station attendant tries to warn her away, but Nan dismisses his concern. Armed with directions, she heads out into the fog-covered night.
Outside of town, Nan picks up a hitchhiker, played by Valentine Dyall. Dyall’s performance is all ominous menace. When he speaks, it’s as though someone is talking through him.
When Nan finally arrives in Whitewood, we recognize it from the opening sequence. The town drips atmosphere, from the fog-laced streets to the dark, claustrophobic interiors. Nan turns to her passenger who, of course, has vanished.
Nan checks into the local inn. The proprietor bears an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Selwyn.
Can you see where this is going?
Before I venture any further, let me say that the DVD from VCI is under $10 on Amazon. It’s the only way to watch the film. There’s a print streaming on Amazon Prime and I’ve seen a few others floating around on YouTube, but they’re all cropped, scratchy or low resolution. Spend the $9 and change and watch it on a decent up-converting DVD player. It’s worth it.
Back to the review. At this point, those weary of spoilers should stop reading as I must cover a few plot points to illustrate why the film is so good.
You see, despite setting up a predictable plot where Nan gets captured by Elizabeth and rescued by her boyfriend, the film takes a darker turn. The witches of Whitewood lure Nan into the tunnels beneath the inn. They snatch her and drag her screaming into a hidden chamber. They place her on a sacrificial altar, holding her down as she kicks and thrashes. A black robed figure raises a knife over her chest. Nan screams. The knife drives toward her chest as we smash-cut to a knife plunging into a cake.
Nan is dead.
It’s quite a narrative surprise, considering she’d been our lone protagonist. Now it’s Nan’s brother, Bob, and Bill who retrace her steps and confront the evil lurking in the village.
And remember Professor Driscoll? It’s hinted early that he might be up to no good, but after Nan meets her fate, there’s no doubt left. Driscoll is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, searching for victims to sustain his cursed brethren. Lee plays him with a perfect mix of cultured charm and seething menace.
Indeed, Lee’s performance, like the film, is an overlooked gem. While critics laud Lee’s early work for Hammer productions, this entry by Hammer rival Amicus3 remains forgotten. It’s a shame, especially considering this film’s combination of contemporary setting and satanic themes foreshadowed the cinematic horror trends that proved to be Hammer’s undoing.4
To that end, one could say The City of the Dead was ahead of its time. That elements like the filling station attendant attempting to warn the unsuspecting strangers, or the red-herring protagonist, have been copied by so many other films they’re now regarded as tropes. But I’ll leave the academia to others. Suffice it to say the film works.
- A possible inspiration for the witch burning skit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?↩
- According to the article on Wikipedia, producer Milton Subotsky added the character of Bill when he rewrote George Baxt’s script.↩
- Then called Vulcan Pictures.↩
- Hammer wouldn’t produce a contemporary satanic-themed horror film until To the Devil a Daughter, their final film. Meanwhile, films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist made millions at the box office.↩