The City of the Dead – Written by George Baxt & Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey & Starring Patricia Jessell (Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs Newless), Christopher Lee (Alan Driscoll), Venetia Stevenson (Nan Barlow), Betta St John (Patricia Russell), Dennis Lotis (Richard Barlow), Tom Naylor (Bill Maitland), Valentine Dyall (Jethro Keane) – Blu-Ray (VCI / MVD Visual)
Film-buffs – particularly British film-buffs – will find lots of reasons to love The City of the Dead in its new limited edition blu-ray version from VCI/MVDvisual. Not that it’s crammed to the gills with extras, though what it does have is enough Christopher Lee to satisfy even the most ardent fan, with a feature length commentary track, and a substantial if somewhat free-range video interview with the Prince of Darkness himself. But The City of the Dead is just so interesting from a cinematic point of view – seen by many as the first of Milton Subotsky’s Amicus movies, there’s a kind of hope in it for the post-Brexit British film industry: made at Shepperton studios, by a company known as Vulcan productions, with a largely British cast, playing Americans, telling a quintessentially American horror story, from the pastimes of the Puritans to the dangers of higher education and the fundamental split between good and evil, personified through good god-fearing women and wild, Satan-worshipping witches. It’s about as black and white as movies come in terms of its storytelling divisions, and while like many movies of its time its social politics now have to be absorbed with as much of a sense of ‘it was a different time’ forgiveness for its 1960 sections as its 1690 ones, it’s relentlessly entertaining horror fare, and you can still suck the pleasure out of every second of it in 2018. In fact, with the western world perhaps more starkly polarised between left and right, Brexit and Remain, Trump and almost everyone who isn’t Trump, you can make a compelling case for the stark black and white divisions of good and evil in the film being more identifiable and more relevant today than at any point in a generation.
The plot is relatively simple: in 1692, the God-fearing Puritans put snarling, spitting, Satan-seducing out and out witch Elizabeth Selwyn to death by fire in the small New England town of Whitewood – but as she goes, she curses the town forever, begging Satan to let her curse work, and promising that in return she’ll do his diabolic bidding forever more (so vivid is this scene, Selwyn’s lines were actually removed from the movie when it was shown Stateside), along with her lover, who’s been invoking the aid of Satan from the sidelines, apparently unconcerned that he can be overheard.
Spool on to 1960 and in the age of science and reason, blonde student Nan Barlow is captivated by her tutor’s descriptions of the witch trials, and resolves to go and stay in Whitewood to do some research on the burnings. She goes to stay at the Raven Inn, run by the statuesque and not-entirely-friendly Mrs Newless (it seems deliciously likely this was intended to be Newlys, because…wordplay). From which point on, things go…less than well for Nan, though before things get medieval, she makes friends with what seem to be the only ‘good’ people in the village, Patricia Russell and her father, the local priest. Patricia lends Nan a book on historical Satan worship in the area, and then Nan (pause for a heavy theatrical cough) ‘skips town overnight, leaving her bill unpaid.’ Two weeks later, Nan’s jock boyfriend and her conveniently science professor elder brother go to look for her and uncover dark doings, Satanic immortality cults and lashings of virgin sacrifice, pitting their wits against the local evildoers and, in at least one case, getting the girl.
In the wrong hands, it could have been nothing but schlock.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning at this point that Professor Driscoll, the tutor who stokes Nan’s initial interest in the witch burnings, and who, it turns out, is a Whitewood native, is played – and importantly, underplayed, by Christopher Lee, here proving that he can be scary when he’s being entirely naturalistic and that he needs nothing but a camera and his own eyes to put the fear of God or the Devil into you. Jethro Keane, a surprisingly random Whitewooder who makes just a couple of appearances, but makes every second of them count, is played by Valentine Dyall, famous in Britain as ‘The Man in Black’ and later, in a touch of typecasting, as the Black Guardian in 1980s Doctor Who. If Lee needs just the camera and his eyes, Dyall needs just a microphone and his incredible, almost appalling voice to give you the sense that he’s been spawned in the pit of Hell. Here though, both men who would be famous as avatars of evil are pretty much acted off the screen by Patricia Jessell in the dual role of Elizabeth Selwyn and her more active 1960s alter ego, Mrs Newless. She brings a sense of fully self-manifested power to the screen that makes you not only believe that she knows more about the universe than you could ever imagine, but also that she’d slit your throat in a heartbeat if she needed to. Or if she happened to be bored on a Saturday night. It’s a compelling performance that makes more of the lines than many actresses could, and it’s Jessell you watch whenever she’s on screen, to be sure you don’t miss a single one of her tricks.
Schlock, this is not.
For all we’ve advanced the arguments of good and evil, faith and science in almost sixty years, there’s some solid spadework done here in not only evoking the modern scientific and psychological world that claims the Puritans were mostly highly strung and vindictive, while the witches were mostly misunderstood, and contrasting that with the world of dualistic opposites in which the Puritans believed, the world of God and the Devil. Dennis Lotis is believable as a kind of live-and-let-live-till-someone-loses-a-head scientist, and the modern world, while not yet having fallen to the devil’s music that is rock and roll, is painted with a stolid modernity of furniture and a funky jazz soundtrack. It’s a world which feels a million miles and nearly five hundred years even from the Whitewood of the 1960s, which seems tumbledown and misty, a town where anything could happen – and does, often to a kind of pre-Omen inversion of medieval plainsong, to underscore its ancient evil mindset.
If you think there’s little to be gained from a Blu-Ray version of a black and white movie from 1960 incidentally, you’re dead wrong – many of the cast, even to the Puritans, appear to have been chosen at least partly for the vividly lived-in faces they have, and the new 2k sharpness of this print really accentuates both the look and the action, giving the film a crispness that distinctly helps you to buy into its storytelling and its mood. If the final act of the movie flirts jusssst a tiny bit with schlock, it’s nevertheless the kind of schlock from which Steven King would later not shrink in Carrie, which is as much of a free pass as you need.
Pick up The City of the Dead for more than the cinematic curiosity of it – pick it up for the classy performances, the sharp delineation of rational and religious worldviews, and the lesson in what happens when those worldviews clash. And of course, for more Christopher Lee than you can shake a sacrificial dagger at. Tony Fyler