An occult thriller with sense and sensibility, this carefully crafted occult spectacle treats the ancient subjects of devil worship and black magic suggestively, preferring to evoke nightmarish imagery and its sense of impending doom in whispers rather than screams. There are plenty of whispers to be had in this return to the eerie sensibilities of old, as moments of shadowy nightmare spill over into the realistically captured world of the everyday. The fine line between the known and unknown, real and fantastic, is emphasized by the director's lurking camera, and by the low key (if convincing) performances. More importantly, a thematically interesting story whose attention to character is as important as the admirably developed surface thrills of moodily captured graveyards, fog-laden streets, and a New England-type setting makes this movie a success, bringing to mind witch-hunts, cold hands, and presences in the dark.

One thing that isn't dark is the director's use of lighting, mirrored in excellence by his camera placement and minimal but effective compositions, which capture the evocative dread and doom pervading the cast as witchery challenges our faith in logic of the everyday, and threatens the lives (and sanity) of a cast of likeable characters. Of course the most important character here is the rolling, licking atmosphere itself. Old roads and battered houses, stone walls and eerily waving trees - the physical dread and otherworldly presence of the physical world mirrors the occult intrigue and supernatural madness threatening likeable people we're made to care about. Even more effective are the believable borderlands established between the supernatural and an increasingly doubtful physical world of rationality and logic, wherein science and certainty are poor weapons against the instinctive terrors of the unknown. By rooting the terrors of the occult within the very confines of the everyday, the director, working from an excellent script, suggests that there is no definite boundary between the living or the dead, sanity and madness, or, finally, between the imaginary or real. Such concepts have little power in this moody ménage of funeral finery. Meanwhile, there is a shadow in your room, coming closer, brushing cold lips against your cheek . . .

Or it could be you've simply fallen under the spell of John Moxey's unapologetically atmospheric horror, crafted in the grand gothic tradition of a time when what was not shown, or suggested, was more disturbing than buckets of blood. A masterwork of understatement and characterization, City of the Dead is a dark gift for lovers of supernatural fright and fine acting. More often available in the Western markets under its alternative name Horror Hotel, which featured a lackluster print that did little good to enhance its reputation, this VCI re-mastered presentation allows it to be appreciated in full luster.

While a British thriller, the film opens up in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, the actual historic date of the Witch-hunts. Beginning as a number of interesting, lovingly shot Italian Gothic movies were in the 1960's and 1970's, a witch burning starts off the festivities. While no American witches were ever, in fact, burned (hung, crushed, starved, eaten and jailed yes - but not burned) we're more interested in artistry than historical accuracy, and that is something this movie has in spades. Elizabeth Sewlyn, ripped from her home in the dead of night, is burned for her pact with Old Scratch. Understandably upset at this, she places a curse on the town's inhabitants . . . but we've already rode the broom forward to present day academia, where master thespian Christopher Lee lectures a classroom of students on the occult. As Driscoll, Lee is believably menacing while his motives are understandable (if not agreeable). The only student truly interested in the study of witchcraft, attractive Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is invited by Driscoll to visit the historically haunted town of Whitewood to visit the actual spot where the witch was burned. Good idea? What do you think?! Spending the night in a local hotel ran by sour locals, one of whom happens to be the reincarnated Elizabeth Sewlynm, Nan indeed makes the travel and spends the night in the village's hotel . . . and the darkness falls . . .

Desmond Dickinson, the cinematographer, teases mood from the very pores of the air in this modern example of ancient fear. As soon as Nan's boyfriend and professor enter the decrepit town in search for her, the tangible sense of doom envelops the cast (and your mood) in a way that splatter-fests and modern made-for-twelve-year-old opuses cannot. The film, a proud example of intelligent supernatural horror cinema, is honored by the lovely presentation of its visual and audio properties. In glorious black-and-white, which adds a noir depth to the spooky proceedings, this seventy-eight minutes of nightmare offers mono sound in 1.66:1 (16x9) picture, and features two more minutes than the American version, as well as inventive commentary. Photo gallery, Biographies, and trailer accompany actor Lee's anecdotal reminiscences ramblings are delightful if unfocused, concentrating more on his career at length, it seems, than on the feature. A cold hand in yours to lead you deeper into the shadows, City of the Dead is so much fun that you'll want to move there!

Review by William P Simmons

Released by VCI
Region All NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review