I had nothing to do last night and wasn’t in the mood to read, so I killed a little time watching a movie I discovered on archive.org: Horror Hotel, aka The City of the Dead (1960).
This could be considered the first film from what would become Amicus Productions, the “not Hammer” British horror house, famous for their series of quite fun horror anthology films in the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not a bad first offering, at all.
Because of the archive.org connection, I can’t help comparing it to Carnival of Souls (which I wrote about a while back, here), another relatively obscure indie horror production made about the same time (1962) that’s ended up in the public domain. Of the two, Carnival is the more interesting film: it has a more original plot, is decently written, and is more creatively shot. There is some clunky dialog, and some terrible acting, though the two leads and the actor who played the landlady are all terrific. Parts of the movie feel like a PSA or an industrial film. And other parts, like German Expressionism. The film sticks with you. “A great movie, but not a good one” is how I describe Carnival of Souls.
Horror Hotel was written by Milton Subotsky, co-founder of Amicus; he clearly loved and was well-read in the horror genre, but his screenplays were, well, not his strongest point. The plot is serviceable, but also pretty standard stuff, and it relied a bit too much on the ingénue protagonist behaving not as intelligently as she ought to have.
What Subotsky was good at was finding actors: Christopher Lee was billed as the lead, though he really has more of a strong supporting role, one he executed with his usual air of aristocratic arrogance (and an American accent!). Patricia Jessel was quite effective as the sinister Mrs. Newless. Valentine Dyall had a brooding, menacing presence, though (like Lee) not a lot to do. The secondary actors were generally better than the secondary actors in Carnival, though you could hear the “American” accents slip quite a bit. The cinematography is good and the editing is interesting in places. A good movie, but not a great one.
Horror Hotel tells the story of a college student, Nan Barlow, who wants to do her senior thesis on the history of witchcraft in Massachusetts. Her professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), sends her to do research in the tiny village of Whitewood, where the witch Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake in 1692. When Nan disappears, her brother, who is a professor at the same college that Nan attends, and her boyfriend go in search of her.
The plot’s got a few holes in it — the biggest and yet least important one being that accused witches were never burned in New England. Hanged, yes, but burning witches was a European thing. Still, there are other problems. Why Nan Barlow would go exploring dark basements at midnight instead of getting the hell out of Dodge, not fifteen minutes after reading a description of exactly what was happening to her, right there in that vintage tome on witchcraft is… well, the eternal question of B-horror, I guess. Also, if the immortal inhabitants of a village have been worshipping the devil for 200+ years, why is there still a Christian minister (and his family) hanging around? Wouldn’t he have just left? Or dealt with the problem, since he seemed to know how? Or been killed when he failed? Anyway…
Horror Hotel shows its low-budgetness a bit more obviously than Carnival did. Professor Driscoll’s “lecture hall” looks like someone’s living room — the same set was used as Driscoll’s house, later in the movie. Professor Barlow’s “lab” seems to be in the family room of a mid-century split-level ranch house: a microscope, a magnifying glass, and a wall of houseplants. Lots and lots of dry ice fog in the village of Whitewood, but Mario Bava used the same trick in Planet of the Vampires, so director John Llewellyn Moxey is in good company.
Still, the film is nicely eerie, lots of light and dark and shadows, quite noirish in places. I liked the scenes of the protagonists wandering the village, while the locals pass by and stare forebodingly. Very Twilight Zone. The deaths are appropriately disturbing: shocking, without being gory. There’s a clever jump cut from a knife about to plunge into a sacrificial victim during a satanic ritual, to a knife stabbing into a birthday cake during a party, and a couple of other similar cuts at dramatic points. The film riffs on the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend a couple of times, to good effect. The ending is pretty cheesy, but delightfully so — I enjoyed it.
I don’t think I’ll run out and buy this (as I did with Carnival of Souls), though I’d consider renting it to see a better print. At any rate, you can see it free at archive.org. It was a pleasant and lightly shivery way to relax and spend 75 minutes.
If you enjoy old-school, mid-twentieth century B horror, give it a try.
Featured image from Cinema Retro.