Monday, December 15, 2014

Horror Hotel

Horror Hotel (1960) aka City of the Dead
Dir. John Llewellyn Moxey
Written by George Baxt
Starring Venetia Stevenson, Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Betta St. John, Valentine Dyall, Patricia Jessel

I think that's supposed to be Lee up there in blue, not sure why he's dressed like a nun though. Don't be fooled by this blatant false advertising, at no point does Lee dress up like a nun.
Boy, this one surprised me. It was the third film on one of those copyright-questionable Horror anthology DVDs you find around, I didn’t really know anything about it except that it featured Christopher Lee in a fairly early horror role (of course, he’d been around since time began, but his big breakout as Dracula came only two years earlier in 1958). I’m somewhere around 90% sure the version I watched was taped off of television and subsequently transferred to DVD, mostly because a TV station logo appears in the bottom right of the screen from time to time.

But the surprise here is that this is actually a startling, eerie and impressive horror film which seems bafflingly overlooked. Even if it wasn’t an intrinsically good movie, you’d think it would at least be remembered as historically important for being the first pre-Amicus Studios production by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. But life just ain’t fair sometimes, I guess. Maybe it’s just that crappy name? HORROR HOTEL sounds like a Fawlty Towers Halloween Special, and CITY OF THE DEAD (the alternate title) sounds like one more of the endless Italian ripoffs of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Both titles are both profoundly generic and utterly misleading as to what the film is actually about. So that might have hurt it, I don’t know, what am I a business major?

Walkin' on the clouds

Anyway, “what the film is actually about” turns out to be witches. Graduate student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson, ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN, DAY OF THE OUTLAW*) decides, with some prompting from her highly suspicious professor (Christopher Lee, JINNAH) to pursue her academic study of witchcraft by traveling to the mysterious, secluded Massachusetts town of Whitewood, which apparently is full of witchy history including the famous burning of Elizabeth Selwyn in the 17th century. Only, this is one of those historical old towns which really makes history come alive, if you catch my drift.

I still got some problems with this oft-used premise where we find revenge being enacted by long-dead witches who ended up burned, because the premise suggests that the ignorant villagers were right to burn these people to begin with, in fact the problem is they didn’t kill them quite dead enough. But I’m willing to put aside my morals a little for something as interestingly crafted as this one. From the opening shot, you can tell that director John Moxley (THE NIGHT STALKER, in his film debut) is going for some serious atmosphere here. He’s not quite an elegant enough visualist to make this a classic, but --with the help of the nation’s entire strategic reserve of dry ice-- manage to capture some genuinely nightmarish black and white images. It’s filled with great, spartan sets and seriously dark lighting with just a few slivers of hard light sometimes, and occasionally traffics very close to out-and-out surrealism. There’s a unique first-person image of car headlights piercing thick tendrils of fog and finding a ghostly figure emerging suddenly out of the mist which --particularly in the lovely high-contrast black and white-- feels positively phantasmagoric. There’s some pedestrian framings in here too, but the atmosphere and mood are strong enough to grow a real sense of dreamlike unease for an eerie, old-fashioned spookfest just on the cusp of more experimental modern techniques.

Hey, let's stop and pick this guy up!

There is some flirting with first-person perspectives, exaggerated, distorted closeups, unsourced hard lighting, etc. but the most cutting-edge thing here is the plot, by novelist George Baxt** (NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), which features a couple twists and turns which must have been downright shocking in 1960 and are pretty unconventional even today. I don’t want to spoil it for you but (MILD SPOILERS ARE IMPLIED BELOW) around the halfway point here something very unexpected happens with turns the movie you think you’re watching into a very different one. It’s an incredibly ballsy and unexpected twist, but unfortunately ended up being overshadowed by another much more famous horror movie which came out the same year. The two were produced at the same time and premiered only a few months apart, so the similarity appears to be mere coincidence. I would actually argue that HORROR HOTEL works better as a narrative than this other movie whose identity I’m dancing around, but it doesn’t approach its level of artistry (though few movies do). You can probably guess what I’m talking about if you try, but don’t think about it too hard until you get this one safely watched. (END MILD IMPLIED SPOILERS).

Most of the movie is pretty well-written, as benefits a novelist working as a screenwriter, although there’s also some noticeably trashier dialogue thrown in at random my Milton Subotsky, who wanted to add an unneeded love interest to the story. Nevertheless, the actors all acquit themselves quite nicely -- Stevenson is likable, and British pop star Dennis Lotis (Terence Fisher’s THE SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST) is a surprisingly strong, Sam-Neill-esque presence as her brother. But of course, it’s the villains who really shine here. Lee is great (boy, was he ever this young!?), but isn’t in it as much as you might think. Instead, the job of head villain falls to Patricia Jessel (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM), a veteran stage actress who positively exudes icy menace and completely dominates the film. Rounding things out is Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a mysterious, sinister hitch hiker.

...And he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast.

The edgy, feverish story line, a solid cast, some sharp production design and an ominous classical score helps the film overcome a few stagey bits and achieve a surprising intensity, especially for the time. Frankly I can’t figure out why this isn’t more widely known and admired, it really deserves to be rediscovered as an early 60’s horror classic which stands firmly in old-school 50s horror but just at the precipice of something new and more aggressive. Plus, it gave the world the Christopher Lee dialogue “Burn Witch! Burn! Burn! BURN!” from Rob Zombie’s Dragula. So obviously you should all go out and find it (or, just watch it on youtube, since the copyright has expired and it’s now legally public domain). But before you do, consider the following as penance for watching yet another movie which tacitly condones the practice of witch-burning: I want to make a horror movie just like this one, but it turns out that the evil shenanigans are not due to witches, but rather the ghosts of the townspeople forever trapped on Earth for burning innocent women. If we’re gonna revisit the sins of the past let’s point out the real villain, OK movies? Obviously I’ll accept as many LORDS OF SALEMS sequels as you’re willing to throw at me, but after that let’s rethink this whole concept a little, got it?
*Also formerly married to both Don Everly (the Everly Brothers) and noted Twin Peaks character actor Russ Tamblyn.

**Baxt wrote a few mid-profile horror movies, but was better known as a writer of detective fiction and most importantly for his character Pharoah Love, a gay, black detective featured in a series of novels from the 60s onward. Man, somebody’s gotta make a movie about that guy.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, but written by novelist George Baxt
  • SEQUEL: No, alas
  • REMAKE: None, although there's a Tobe Hooper movie of the same name
  • FOREIGNER: British film, but it's supposedly set in America so everyone has varying degrees of American accents.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Christopher Lee
  • BOOBIES: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No, just the regular kind
  • MONSTER: None
  • THE UNDEAD: I think they may be ghost witches?
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Killing is part of the plan here
  • EVIL CULT: Yes, a rare straightforward example!
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High. Public domain now.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Don't get your masters degree in witchcraft, what the fuck were you thinking lady. I mean, even if it doesn't get you sent off to a mystery village to be sacrificed to the devil, what in God's name are you going to do with that degree?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There is a hotel, and horror does occur there. But I can't help feeling that the title misses some of the nuance here. Still technically accurate. "City of the Dead" is more misleading, because while there may be some dead people here, it's clearly not a city, it's a town, tops, and probably a village.
Very strong 4-thumb effort, easily in the B+/A- range.

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