Halloween Countdown: City of the Dead (1960)

Oh stop! This would be more effective at midnight with howling winds and crashing thunder and even then it wouldn’t frighten anyone
—Professor Barlowe

Hammer Studios made a name for itself in the late 1950s and early 1960s as purveyors of gothic horror, became more sexualized in the early 70s, halted production in the 1980s, and has tried to reestablish itself in the twenty-first century, with mixed results. Its most lasting contributions to the horror genre are probably Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Lesbian Vampires as a genre, and The Wicker Man, one of the most notorious horror films ever made (with possibly the worst remake in cinematic history. Few b-movies have ever been as bad as 2006’s Neil LaBute/Nicholas Cage disaster).

The Wicker Man did not spring fully-formed out of Hammer’s head. Hammer slowly nailed the pieces together, with two significant precursors: City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960) and The Witches aka The Devil’s Own (1966).

With Halloween approaching we’re reviewing both tales of strangers finding themselves in small communities that aren’t what they seem.

Title: City of the Dead / Horror Hotel

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Writers: George Baxt, Milton Subotsky

Dennis Lotis as Richard Barlow
Christopher Lee as Alan Driscoll
Patricia Jessel as Elizabeth Selwyn / Mrs. Newless
Venetia Stevenson as Nan Barlow
Tom Naylor as Bill Maitland
Betta St. John as Patricia Russell
Valentine Dyall as Jethrow Keane
Ann Beach as Lottie
Norman MacOwan as Reverend Russell
Fred Johnson as The Elder
James Dyrenforth as Garage Attendant
Maxine Holden as Sue
William Abney as Policeman

Available on Blu-Ray and Video on Demand


Hammer moves to New England (though they shot the entire film in the Merry Old country) to tell the tale of a young woman whose academic research into witchcraft brings her to a small Massachusetts town.

In a shocking development, things aren’t what they seem.

High Points:

The film features strong editing, with some creepy cuts and moments, especially around the killings.

Low Points:

The film is uneven. The British actors’ American accents slip at times. The set and some of the non-killing scary moments feel very clichéd and, during certain mood-setting scenes, current audiences may think more of Scooby-doo or a Chick tract than anything genuinely frightening.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 Innocent(ish) outsider ends up in a small community with a horrific secret. Of course, we’ve seen that before, and Lovecraft’s influence, in particular, is in evidence. More originally, we have a Creepy Old Guy at the Gas Station who warns the protagonist to go back, years before Friday the 13th‘s Walt Gorney immortalized the type, or before Cabin in the Woods riffed hilariously on it.

The Seventh Victim (1943) may have had an influence on the story. City of the Dead also contains many curious parallels with Psycho, but as both films were in production at the same time, it seems unlikely that one influenced the other.

Effects: 3/6 New England has a lot of fog in February but, apparently, no snow or even chilliness.

Story: 5/6

Acting: 4/6 Acting varies. Christopher Lee is in fair form here. Some of the other performances recall community theatre, and the obvious soundstage shooting in certain scenes does nothing to dispel the overall effect.

Production: 4/6

Emotional Response: 4/6 The film proves uneven but occasionally quite effective, a competent horror movie of its time overshadowed by stronger productions. Its influence on later Hammer films would be difficult for viewers of the studio’s oeuvre to miss.

The film has a gratuitous shot of our young ingénue changing, revealing her unexpectedly slinky lingerie. While the filmmakers undoubtedly expected a certain reaction, the shot is so aggressively gratuitous it may evoke a rather different one from some viewers.

Overall: 4/6 +1 bonus for its influential place in horror history.

In total, City of the Dead receives 27/42.

Oct. 7: XX (2017) (JD)
Oct.14: Blade Runner 2049 (2017) (W. Blaine)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) (JD)
Oct.21: Hellsing Ultimate (2006-2012) (Alex)
Oct.28: Hammer Horror Double-feature:
City of the Dead(1960) and The Devil’s Own (1966) (JD)
Oct. 31: Get Out (2017) (Brian)