City Of The Dead (1959)

Once again, the casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking this is an American film with all its American accents, American settings and generally American-ness (even Christopher Lee is sporting a New England drawl), but it's as British as fish and chips, bangers n' mash, or Crufts.

I say "surprisingly" good because you just don't expect this kind of fare from Amicus. Their films were always very entertaining, but they seldom ventured into the same kind of chiller territory as Night Of The Eagle or Night Of The Demon. Yes, City Of The Dead really is intelligent, scary and well made enough to be compared to these films.

The film starts with a flashback to witch burnings in Whitewood, Massachussets. As Elizabeth Selwyn (Betta St John) is dragged to the pyre (complete with Pythonesque chants of "Witch!" and "Burn her!"), she calls out to a man called Jethrow (Valentine Dyall) for help, but he denies being in league with her. Then, quick as a flash, he offers up a prayer to Lucifer (the little fibber), and a huge shadow falls across the village…

The story is being told by college lecturer Driscoll (Christopher Lee), who bookends it by leering into the camera and chanting "Burn witch, burn witch, burn!" in a comedy American accent ("Dig that crazy beat" cracks one of his male students).

Token attractive blonde, Nan Barlow, wants to study witchcraft "in situ" (?) and stays behind after class to ask Driscoll's advice. He immediately points her towards Whitewood, where Elizabeth "charcoal brickette" Selwyn was rumoured to have risen from the grave and sucked the blood of her victims.

Being the feisty young gal that she is, Nan immediately sets off on her own, arriving at a fog bound petrol station, where the attendant tells her "not many God-fearing folks visit Whitewood these days…"

She carries on regardless (nothing is putting this girl off, not even the thickest fog ever committed to celluloid), and when a figure looms out of the mist she stops and gives him a lift to the village. Despite his modern dress, the man is immediately recognisable to the audience as Jethrow from the witch-burning shenanigans at the beginning, so that can't be good…

"For 300 years the devil has hovered over this city… made it his own"

And things get worse when Nan arrives at Whitewood. First her miserable passenger does a disappearing act, then it turns out that the hatchet-faced owner of the only hotel in town (The Raven Inn) is none other than… you guessed it, Elizabeth "kindling" Selwyn.

Whitewood is an astonishingly well-realised spooky place. Silent figures drift in and out of the fog, seemingly uninterested in Nan as she wanders about. Reverend Russell, the local vicar, doesn't lighten the mood much, either: "For 300 years the devil has hovered over this city… made it his own," he tells Nan without a great deal of prompting, "I have no parish, no-one worships here! Leave before it is too late!"

But our feisty heroine is having none of this, and it's roughly about this time that you begin to think she might be a bit thick. After reading up on Candlemass Eve and the rites that went on on that day, she doesn't seem at all worried by: a. The singing coming from underneath her room ("There is nothing underneath but earth," the hotelier tells her); b. The fact that it actually is Candlemass Eve; c. The disappearance of an "item of value" (an integral part of the rites she's so interested in).

There's a rather wonderful scene when Nan walks out of her bedroom to find a group of people dancing (we don't see their faces), rushes back to get changed ready to join them and then bursts back into a suddenly empty room. But that's nothing compared to what happens next, as in a moment of Psycho-like plot mechanics we see our supposed heroine brutally stabbed to death.

After a while, Nan's brother (who happens to work with Lee's character) gets worried about his missing sibling and calls the police, who fail to find a trace of her at the Raven Inn. Concerned, he visits Lee (stopping a sacrifice to the "Lord Of Light") who gives veiled warnings about trying to track her down.

Lee is then visited by the Reverend Russell's granddaughter (who Nan struck up a friendship with during her brief stay), looking for Nan's family. After getting the brush-off from Lee she heads back to Whitewood, picking up Jethrow on the way. For some reason, her brief sojourn away from the place has got her marked down as the next sacrifice, as the devil worshippers have decided they now need "a living descendant of those who were cursed". Luckily, she's being followed - not only by the suspicious brother but also by Nan's boyfriend, Maitland. And it turns out that everyone in Whitewood is undead - the locals were granted eternal life in a pact with the devil…

City Of The Dead is an astonishing monochrome feast. The fog-bound sets are incredible, the shocks are extremely shocking (every time someone looms out of the fog, a brilliantly executed body-in-the-cupboard moment), and the performances are uniformly great.

Half way through the film you get that death, which adds to the unsettling nature of the proceedings, but it's the graveyard ending which will blow you away. It has to be the most spectacular set-piece that 50s/60s British horror produced, and the film is worth sitting through for the last 10 minutes alone. Noble teenage sacrifice and dozens of exploding monks - does it get any better than that?

Last updated: February 17, 2010

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City Of The Dead 1959

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