A note of clarification: That "X" rating seen on this poster is the long-standing British equivalent to our homegrown "R" and should not be taken as an indicator of pornographic content. Back in the days the British censors slapped an X onto anything that could be considered even remotely objectionable, so it was not a surefire guarantee of graphic sex, nudity, violence, or gore. In fact, there is nothing in this film that would have garnered it anything more severe than a "PG" at worst.
Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), a young student of occult history, makes the grave error of taking the advice of her rather sinister professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), and traveling to Whitewood, Massachusetts to study its history of witchcraft that dates back by three centuries. Upon her arrival in Whitewood, which happens to be one of the eeriest places imaginable, Nan encounters a population of creepy, odd-acting locals and ends up in the crosshairs of innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel). Newless is in actuality the current incarnation of Elizabeth Selwyn, an immortal, in-league-with-Satan witch who heads the local coven (which consists of damned near everyone in town), and with a virgin sacrifice required to keep her eternal life going, Newless has earmarked Nan as the sacrificial lamb of choice. When weeks pass and Nan does not return from her research trip, her disappearance is investigated by a number of concerned parties who all flock straight to Whitewood for a confrontation with the literally diabolical.
The totally non-creepy streets of Whitewood.
Released in the States as HORROR HOTEL — a lame title that does not in any way suggest what a gem this semi-forgotten effort is — this is one of the earliest horror movies I remember seeing on TV when I was very little (maybe four or five years old) and was also my very first movie about sinister modern-day witches, which resulted in them numbering among my favorite villainous horror archetypes. Newless and her coven are all of the witchery tropes that one can name, transplanted to a mundane 20th century setting, which brings their evil magickal doings into direct conflict with the skepticism of a supposedly more enlightened age.
Newless and Driscoll: In league with Satan!!!
While ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) is perhaps the codifying example of the modern-day witchcraft movie, THE CITY OF THE DEAD is totally worth checking out for its dark doings at the dawn of the 1960's, a soon-to-be-turbulent period that made one forget the previous decade's squeaky-clean fantasies of a suburban America defined by LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and FATHER KNOWS BEST. It should also be noted that THE CITY OF THE DEAD bears similarities to PSYCHO (which came out the same year), specifically the presumed protagonist meeting a nasty demise at the wrong end of a knife less than halfway through the movie and a number of people who go to the scene of the crime to investigate and find a very fucked up situation. PSYCHO and THE CITY OF THE DEAD could not be more different in approach, but it's neat to see two horror flicks produced in different countries and cultures tap into the same vein of "wrong place, wrong time" fear.
Poster for the original U.S. release.