Blasts from the Past! Blu-ray Review: THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)

This Blu-ray is currently available from MVD Visual and VCI Entertainment (https://mvdb2b.com/s/CityOfTheDeadRemasteredLtdEdition/VCI9036) (https://www.vcientertainment.com/Blu-ray).

When I was a little kid, I often watched old horror movies via VHS. Often, the image quality was less than spectacular. The City of the Dead was a UK production that got snipped down by its US distributor and was renamed Horror Hotel. Every version I had ever seen on old formats had a very ugly, fuzzy quality and looked poor overall. Thankfully, this issue has now been rectified courtesy of VCI. The City of the Dead Blu-ray arrives in a Limited Edition presents includes the uncut, UK version of the film newly remastered. The results are spectacular. This is an atmospheric little chiller that looks incredible in high definition.

The movie itself was put together by Vulcan Productions. At the time, it was a new company. In fact, there would be a name change to Amicus and the studio would soon become famous for horror anthology films like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror (among many others). The City of the Dead marks an early but effective effort; it’s a witchcraft-themed tale set in Massachusetts. Admittedly, the film has a couple of stings and twists reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic Psycho, yet research reveals that this feature was actually shot before its more famous counterpart.

The story begins with a flashback set in 1692 at the small village of Whitewood, Massachusetts. A woman (Patricia Jessel) ends up tied to the stake and burned as a witch by a Puritan vigilante mob. However, before she’s set ablaze the lady makes a deal with the Devil and curses the town. In 1962, university student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) discusses her interest in the study of witchcraft with professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Driscoll suggests that she visit Whitewood as part of her research. However, when she gets there, she finds the resident’s behavior sinister and the area itself filled with danger. Her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis), fiancé Bill (Tom Naylor), and a normal local named Patricia (Betta St. John) soon head into town and attempt to help the young woman out.

This was a low-budget feature, but you wouldn’t know it by its appearance. The movie is all about atmosphere and it oozes an ominous tone with every shot of the small and creepy town. Apparently, it was filmed entirely in the UK, with even outdoor exteriors having been constructed on a soundstage. This adds an uneasy and surreal quality to the environment and allows for the old wooden buildings, streets and town cemetery to be caked in a slow-swirling fog. Frankly, the photography looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (Hamlet, A Study in Terror) had numerous features under his belt and made excellent use of the unique studio sets. Even the interior of a hotel features shadows of fireplace flames bouncing off of walls and creating a dramatic lighting effect.

And while this is a fairly routine story of do-gooders trying to identify and stamp out a coven of evil witches, the feature does some fairly daring things for its day. There’s a big twist or two that no doubt won’t have quite the same impact today, but would have shocked viewers at the time of release. It’s also a little more graphic than many features of its time, adding an extra jolt to horrific moments. The performances are quite good and most would be surprised to learn that the roles are played almost entirely by an English cast. The strong performances invest viewers in the proceedings and help sell the idea of these scholarly characters slowly abandoning traditional logic and taking notice of the supernatural elements occurring around them.

It’s an excellent little film and I’ve never seen it looking quite so sharp. As someone who has seen it presented in the past it has always looked disappointingly grainy. This Blu-ray is incredibly sharp and really highlights the striking visuals. I can’t say enough about how good the transfer is.

This disc also includes a couple of extras. The first bonus is a 45 minute interview with Christopher Lee. Recorded at least 15 years ago, he speaks about his career and shares stories about the various filmmakers he’s worked with over the years, from Orson Welles to Peter Jackson. It’s an interesting discussion with lots of fascinating tidbits, although Lee tends to fly off on tangents and come across as grouchy about the British film industry, as well as the press. Still, there are some good bits and curious comments, particularly about a remake of the 1968 film The Devil Rides Out that sadly, never came to fruition. Strangely enough, the one subject not dealt with in the interview is this film, but the second bonus makes up for that omission.

The second extra is a feature commentary track with a moderator and Lee, who shares plenty of anecdotes about working on the film. Again, the pair get sidetracked and it’s clear that they aren’t always certain about what is happening onscreen (it’s clear the actor hasn’t seen the movie in decades and the pair are watching it without audio). However, there are still plenty of intriguing moments, particularly when the actor shares and describes his own interest and knowledge of witchcraft.

Overall, this Blu-ray from VCI is excellent and helps give more attention to a film that hasn’t ever seemed to get the following it deserves (at least in this part of the world). The disc would be worth the price for nothing more than the incredible transfer, but the bonus features included add even more insight and information about actor Lee and the feature. For those with an interest in classic horror pictures, The City of the Dead is highly recommended and well worth any fan’s time.

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