Today, reflecting on the passing of the legendary Sir Christopher Lee earlier this month, I decided to check out one of his less well-known pieces of work, a 1960 horror film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (“Foxhole In Cairo”) which was released in the UK as “The City Of The Dead” but re-titled for the US as “Horror Hotel”.
Although filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey and produced by a British film company, the film was set in Whitewood, a fictional Massachusetts town and the British actors involves had to adopt American accents.
Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee – “The Wicker Man”, “The Devil Rides Out”) is teaching a course on witchcraft in an American college.
Driscoll encourages one of his students, blonde Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson – “Island Of Lost Women”, “Studs Lonigan”), to use a break in the school year to travel to the small isolated town of Whitewood (which seems to suffer from a permanent infestation of dry ice on the streets and full of characters who stand in silence, staring!) to carry out some field research.
The town has a history of witchcraft and The Raven’s Inn, the hotel that Driscoll recommends to her, has a plaque to commemorate the 17th century burning at the stake of witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel – “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”) – during which Selwyn had pledged her eternal life to Satan if she was spared from death.
Nan arrives at the hotel on Candlemas Eve, the date on which the town’s coven traditionally met. She goes out to investigate the town, borrows a book on witchcraft from Patricia Russell (Betta St. John – “Corridors Of Blood”), the daughter of the town’s Reverend, to help with her research. However, by morning she has seemingly vanished.
Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis – “Sword Of Sherwood Forest”) and boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor – “Danger By My Side”) discover her disappearance two weeks later when the school break is over and travel to Whitewood looking for her.
The hotel owner, Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel again) tells them, and anyone else enquiring, that Nan checked out after a day without paying for her room. Naturally Richard and Bill don’t give up and, aided by Patricia, and struggle to comprehend what they uncover…
This is a charmingly naïve and really rather innocent horror film, particularly compared to the likes of the more bloodthirsty and cleavage-baring Hammer films.
Nan is a particularly innocent and trusting character. As for Driscoll – let’s say that whilst there’s nothing wrong with Lee’s American accent and the actor’s presence, this isn’t going to replace “The Wicker Man” as my favourite Lee film, or even near favourite. Nonetheless, it’s certainly worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned black and white afternoon movie…