It’s a shame that so many British horror movies had to be released with a different, catchier title here in the United States to make them more box office friendly. That was actually the norm. For some reason, The City of the Dead was too abstract, and so it became Horror Hotel for us folks here in the “colonies”. I don’t know, the name just cheapens it a little bit. Yes, there is a hotel (more like a small village inn) and there is plenty of horror, but aside from just being the place that hosts the victims, this movie has little to do with a hotel. Christopher Lee plays a college professor who teaches a course on witchcraft. One of his best students (Venetia Stevenson) is captivated by his classes and requests a suggestion for where she can continue her field work outside of class. He tells her to visit Whitewood, site of a witch hysteria in the 1600’s and the place he was born.
She arrives to find a dilapidated old town. The set and atmosphere will remind you of a Twilight Zone episode. The people there are more than hostile to outside visitors, though she does find respite at the inn. Strange goings-on then take place, including hearing what sounds like chanting emanating from the basement. When she inquires with the innkeeper (Patricia Jessel), she is told there wasn’t any chanting. Upon investigating further and acquiring additional manuscripts for her research, she becomes the focal point of a modern-day witch cult who needs to sacrifice a young girl every year. But as we soon find out, its members are anything but modern. During the initial witch burnings of hundreds of years prior, a curse was put on the town. The residents were doomed to haunted Whitewood for all of eternity.
There are a couple of small twists which I do not want to spoil, and also the instances of Stevenson’s friends coming to try to find her. Horror Hotel is only 78 minutes, and while most times I find myself begging for such a running time of films like this, part of me wishes it was longer. I too have always been fascinated by witchcraft. I teach a class on it (and the European mass hysteria) at Brookdale Community College. Therefore, even though this was a fictional work from start to finish, I found myself relating to it. The script is as good as it could be and the acting sincere. Lee does a wonderful job of playing the perfect, lovable professor who is hiding something. We find out what about halfway through. The black and white film is perfect for such a theme. The entire movie is covered in shadows and fog, helping to illustrate the confusion that the characters are feeling on their journey.
By the end of it all, you will probably be in agreement with me that they should have left the original title of The City of the Dead. For some reason, this isn’t up there with Christopher Lee’s greatest hits. Perhaps it is because he is a bit of a supporting player in his own movie. Nonetheless, this one is quite effective in telling a story and the building of suspense in the final scenes. John L. Moxey directed a gem here, and I feel like I’ll be watching it every October. 8 out of 10 stars.
Also starring Dennis Lotis, Tom Naylor, and Betta St. John. Based on the story by Milton Subotsky.
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