Review and EXCLUSIVE artwork by Mark Satchwill
Whitewood, 1692. Elizabeth Selwyn (the wonderful Patricia Jessel, looking like a cross between Anjelica Houston and Siouxsie on a bad hair day) is dragged from her house by her Puritan neighbours, accused of being a witch. As she starts to burn, a shadow falls over the town and she calls out to Lucifer,then laughs as the flames climb higher, cries of “Burn, witch, burn” filling the air….
Fast forward 300 years and student Nan Barlow(Venetia Stephenson), wanting to research her studies on witchcraft in 17th Century New England is directed to visit Whitewood and stay at the Raven’s Inn, run by a Mrs. Newless, by her sauve lecturer Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). She drives through the mists, picking up a strange man who vanishes mysteriously once she arrives in the town. After booking into the Inn, events reach a crescendo as she realises she is out of her depth and has discovered more than she bargained for….
Horror Hotel (or City of the Dead, it’s UK title) is a little gem of a movie. First-time director John Moxey (Circus of Horrors) manages to create a wonderfully sinister atmosphere through inventive direction and lighting (and the liberal use of a smoke machine). Whitewood itself is shrouded in fog and always dark, and the inhabitants stop in the street and stare at visitors (in particular two very strange and sinister old ladies). The Raven’s Inn is always lit by flickering firelight, full of shadows. One striking scene features couples dancing in the hotel lobby, their faces always hidden in shadow as they twirl until suddenly, they are gone. These scenes contrast with the brightly lit college offices and the home of Nan’s brother Richard, where the idea of witchcraft is scoffed at until she goes missing.
The performances are all fine but it’s really the bad guys who stand out. The aforementioned Patricia Jessel is excellent in her dual role as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless, menacing without ever being over-dramatic. Christopher Lee uses his intense stare to great effect, and Valentine Dyall (later to pay the Black Guardian in Doctor Who) is quietly creepy as Jethro, Elizabeth’s consort. Also worthy of note is poor, doomed, dumb maid Lottie, played by a young Ann Beach (later known for her role in sit-com Fresh Fields).
It’s interesting to note that the film was released in the same year as another, more famous black and white movie where the blonde heroine books into a hotel and meets a sticky end halfway through the film – Psycho. However, the film owes more to the movies of Val Lewton in its use of darkness and shadow to create tension and atmosphere, as opposed to Hitchcock’s more psychological terrors.
If you haven’t seen Horror Hotel/City of the Dead, then you’re missing a treat! Buy now from Amazon!