Thanks to VCI Entertainment for providing a review copy.
Christopher Lee is a horror icon and his version of Count Dracula while working for Hammer Films is instantly recognizable. While Lee is known to some fans for his role as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels, it is his work in horror that is remembered most. One of Lee’s most enduring film’s is 1960’s The City of the Dead.
The City of the Dead was produced in England but takes place in the fictional city of Whitewood, Massachusetts. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a young college student interested in witchcraft. College professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) suggests she go to Whitewood to learn more about the subject. All the horror tropes are here. A hotel that is not found on any map; a passive aggressive innkeeper; a person who cannot talk and knows the town’s secret. The story is generic, but interesting.
There are many set pieces for the film’s relatively short run time (around one hour and fifteen minutes) and they are beautifully shot. Every shot in Whitewood conveys a sense foreboding. The streets cannot be seen through the dense fog and the citizens of the small town walk around in a trancelike stupor. The movie has a constant underlying tension.
While the setting is well done, there are some odd musical choices. Jazz is used that sounds cool (if you are a jazz fan) but does not fit the tone of the movie. There is also a tense moment in the movie that uses a sitcom like musical arrangement that takes the viewer completely out of the moment. For the most part, The City of the Dead uses appropriately spooky music, but there are some head turning decisions. (Ironically, scenes from the movie have been used by a number of musical acts, including Iron Maiden, Rob Zombie, and the Misfits.)
The movie essentially uses an ensemble cast. Nan Barlow’s journey is the catalyst for the bulk of the movie, but she is much like Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Lee gets top billing but Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and Patricia (Betta St. John) get as much screen time. The cast does a fine job, but it is hard to get attached to any characters since The City of the Dead never takes the time to develop any of its characters.
What stands out most about The City of the Dead is how much of a television show vibe it gives off. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is noticeable. Much like the characters, everything in the movie feels truncated. Scenes flow from one to another in between and explanations and revelations come at a rapid fire pace. Everything feels like it is unfinished up to its abrupt ending.
The City of the Dead would have been better suited as a television series than a movie. While there is nothing wrong with the story or cast it feels incomplete. The movie is an easy watch but would have been helped by a deeper plot.