Movie Review by Curt Solash
I love low budget films that show a successful movie can be made without a lot of money if the director has talent, imagination, and cares about his product. Horror Hotel, or as the British version is known, City of the Dead, is just such a movie. A modest witchcraft film, made in England but taking place in America, it packs quite a punch and expert performances, staging, lighting, pacing, and a great script make it a minor horror classic. Film students would do well to view it for several reasons and horror fans who haven’t seen it are sure to enjoy it immensely.
* Horror Hotel (AKA City of the Dead)
* Trans-Lux (British)
* Director: John Moxey
* Cast :Dennie Lotis, Christopher Lee, Patricia, Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson
We open with a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn, being burned at the stake in Whitewood, Ma. in the late seventeenth century. As the crowd is chanting for her death, she and her cohorts among the crowd are begging Lucifer to spare her. She utters the usual curse, promising to return. The story is really being told to a twentieth century college class by Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee).
Though many in the class, including her boyfriend are skeptical, Nan Barlow is very serious indeed about witchcraft and demonology and the professor suggests she go to the very same Whitewood to continue her research, although her boyfriend and brother, another teacher at the university, advise against it.
She goes to the recommended Raven’s Inn run by a Mrs. Newless who only agrees to rent Nan a room when she mentions who sent her. Here the movie’s low budget starts to work in its favor. As she approaches the town the surroundings turn pitch black, obviously filmed on a set, but that very unreality helps set the sinister, supernatural mood. Clues start to appear that she’s now in demonic territory – a hitchhiker she picked up abruptly vanishes into thin air, Mrs. Newless (brilliantly played with nuanced menace by Patricia Jessel) points out that this is the very spot on which Selwyn was burned four hundred years previously and the town and its few inhabitants truly look Satanic. All of this is conveyed minimally, carefully and most effectively without any unneeded special effects. Director Moxey is to be credited for creating a truly frightening atmosphere on a very small budget.
Nan is too engrossed or stupid to realize she’s in great danger. She hears strange chanting under the floor of her room, a crowd in the lobby suddenly dematerializes, she finds a dead bird in her cabinet after reading that the witches mark their sacrificial victim that way, she ignores a servant’s warnings, and an old, blind priest warns her to leave town immediately. It’s all to no avail as she is abducted and sacrificed to Satan.
It is no secret at this point that Mrs. Newless (Selwyn phonetically backwards) and her cohorts have come back from the dead, as they do every year for Candlemas Eve when Lucifer demands a blood sacrifice. It in no way ruins the exciting pace or continuity that we become aware of this fact early on. Nan’s brother follows her up to Whitewood when she is not heard from and also becomes imprisoned. The boyfriend saves the day in an exciting climax. As he, too, follows the Barlows to Whitewood, the witches cause an almost fatal road accident. He manages to stumble to town and thanks to a friendly bookshop’s friendly advice, causes the witches to burst into flame by pointing a cross at them. Our adventure ends when the survivors go back to the inn and see Elizabeth Selwyn’s charred corpse under the plaque commemorating the original burning four hundred years before.
For all those (like me) who love demonology, witchcraft and movies about them, there are no real surprises, but by allowing the suggestion of menace and surrealism work for itself, director Moxey has crafted a very satisfying and dynamic film. Its very simplicity and “bare bones” approach are a total success. I recommend it highly.
CURT LOVES OLDIES: Curt Solash dishes on the best and worst movies of all time
Curt Solash is a retired educator, an antique advertising collector and a lifelong cinemaphile from New York City who now lives in sunny Florida with his life partner.