Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Big Christopher Lee Rules ‘City of the Dead’

By Steve Evans

“Scream with guests from the ‘other world’ when you ring for doom service!” ~ From the promotional poster.

City of the Dead delivers old-school shivers while taking a cue from Psycho (1960), released a year earlier, and paving the way for atmospheric horrors to come.

Christopher Lee (The Man With the Golden Gun) leads a coven of New England witches while toiling as a mysterious professor on the other side of the Atlantic. While not in the same league as the gorgeous color productions by Hammer Studios, this tight little black-and-white horror film zips along like a spook on speed to a terrific, fiery climax. Careful viewers will note certain similarities to other horror films of the era, like the aforementioned Hitchcock classic. While the acting and story are ho-hum, the film does fulfill the Joe Bob Briggs doctrine of horror-movie excellence: “Anyone can die at any time.”

Let's check it out, shall we?

A bit of plot…
This horror thriller makes the most of a low budget, avoiding Grand Guignol gore in favor of creepy atmosphere and weird supporting actors.

Christopher Lee stars as the peculiar Professor Driscoll, an expert in the occult at a staid private college in England. With his blessing, spunky student Nan (Venetia Stevenson, Seven Ways from Sundown) leaves college for mid-term break to visit the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where witches were burned at the stake in the 18th century. Professor Driscoll piques her curiosity and even recommends a place for her to stay: at the Raven's Inn. Needing no further encouragement, Nan proposes to research local witchcraft legends for her term paper. She leaves behind a boyfriend and doting brother, both of whom gently mock her interest in black magic. But the men become understandably nervous a few weeks later when Nan fails to check in with her regularly scheduled call. Turns out the sleepy hamlet of Whitewood is crawling with hooded zombies and witches fond of haunting underground passages and indulging in human sacrifice in the gloriously gothic cemetery on the edge of town. Nasty Necromancers.

Historical context
Hot-damn tamale! I do love creaky old black & white horror films, heavy on the gothic atmosphere and ice-cold chills. By turns spooky and sometimes unintentionally amusing, City of the Dead earns a place in the film collections of discriminating horror fans and bad-movie enthusiasts alike. This is not as contradictory as it sounds. The picture is expertly produced, which is admirable given the obviously thin budget. Problem is, Lee is the only star in the picture, while all other actors in this film have long since faded into obscurity. So the thespian talent ranges from superb (Lee) and marginal (most everyone else) down to “we-hired-her-for-the-cheesecake-value” (the gorgeous but otherwise untalented Stevenson, who plays the hapless coed roaming around in remote American towns that even frat boys would avoid). Is it just me, or does the lovely Ms. Stevenson (above, right) possess the neck of a giraffe?

Director John Moxey devoted most of his career to television productions, from early episodes of The Avengers through Charlie's Angels and Murder, She Wrote. This was his first feature film and the static direction occasionally belies his TV origins. This might also be a factor of budgetary limitations. In spite of his thin budget, Moxey suddenly shifts into high gear for one hellzapoppin’ climax, featuring burning crosses and wild, screaming Satanists who meet a crispy demise, like the unlucky lass below.

Here's the good news: the cult-minded folks at VCI have undertaken a complete restoration of the film, now presented uncut for the first time in nearly 50 years. The DVD includes two minutes of missing footage that was hacked out of the U.S. version, which was titled Horror Hotel. I have no qualms about the print, which is crisp, clean and free of annoying pixilation. The transfer is sharp, with deep blacks and no obvious edge enhancement around the 1.66:1 framing. On the downside, audio is soft and occasionally fuzzy. There's no sign of the Dolby Digital logo anywhere on this package.

Horror film enthusiasts might overlook the disappointing audio just to get their hands on a remarkably generous set of extras. Shoddy DVD packages are so common with the horror genre (especially older titles like this) that any release featuring more than a trailer on the extras menu is reason to rejoice. But to come across such a comprehensive set of features as found on this disc is a small miracle of the DVD age. We get two commentary tracks, plus a trailer, a photo gallery of production stills, and cast biographies. There is a telling interview with starlet Stevenson, who reveals she never wanted to be an actor (Stevenson’s latter-day claim to fame was her work as executive producer on Walter Hill’s bad-ass 1981 action-adventure, Southern Comfort). Better still, and possibly the deciding factor in favor of buying this DVD, is a 45-minute interview with the great Christopher Lee himself. However, this leads us straight to a caveat, so don't get wet just yet.

Yeah, that caveat I just mentioned…
If there is any negative criticism to levy on this DVD, it is minor and directed at the interview with Lee on the extras menu. Though admittedly fun, the interview is conducted by a weak reporter who is so in awe of the legendary actor that he cannot (or will not) keep the man focused. Lee rambles at times and tends to come across as a pompous ass. In fairness, he is also a fascinating conversationalist and generous in sharing credit for his many cinematic successes. The main complaint is that a skilled interviewer given almost an hour to chat with a living legend could have extracted significantly more insight and information, rather than allow the man to wander wherever he chooses. This was a missed opportunity.

Count on a satisfying night of cinematic fright. City of the Dead remains all the more impressive when we realize the production came together on a modest budget using sets in Britain to replicate a New England village, American actors fobbing off English accents and British actors (like Lee) enunciating like Americans. Most of the film is set in a fictional Massachusetts town, although the entire production was filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. Yes, there were many ways this picture could have derailed, but it never jumps the tracks.

Best viewed ‘round midnight, City of the Dead will induce chills and wee-budget thrills. That's pure happiness for discerning horror-film fans who understand what a sweet find this quality disc represents.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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