Shadows and Fog: “The City of the Dead” (1960)
A caveat: the following article may reveal destinations of plotting that may despoil a virginal viewing of the film. Reader discretion is advised.
“The basis of fairy tales is in reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.”
Uncertainty is as important to the horror film as faith is to the religious epic; as it marks the tenuous line where reason is engaged in an unceasing battle with the subconscious in fortifying the more cogent side of the mind against the sharpened claws of our most primal fears. Those fears, which we are told, are best kept at bay in the coldly clinical light of reality. Horror films endowed with a superior intelligence (those which seek a greater purpose than boogeyman scare tactics) employ this psychological schism in the advancement of constructing a scenario in which sources of dread credibly coexist with the rational world.
A lean, intelligent little occult thriller with atmosphere to spare, John Llewelyn Moxey’s “The City of the Dead” (stupidly and dismissively renamed “Horror Hotel” in the States to virtually repel it’s most likely appreciative audience from attendance) makes use of the fertile territory of phantasmagoria that laid forth the power of dread by suggestion in the classic Val Lewton productions of the 1940’s and admirably carried forth by Jacques Tourneur (himself an alumnus of the Lewton creative team) in his remarkable film translation of M.R. James’ short story Casting the Runes, “Night of the Demon” (aka “Curse of the Demon”). Similar to Tourneur’s film, “The City of the Dead” pits the rational against the supernatural with the involvement of the most conspicuous of adversarial antagonists: the man of reason (represented by science) versus the practitioners of faith (represented by Satanists).
When Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) wishes to pursue research for a midterm paper on witchcraft, her history professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), advises her to visit the remote New England town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where centuries before a practitioner of witchcraft, Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake. Despite the protests of her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) and brother, science professor Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), both of whom are dismissive of her interest in what they regard as a nonsense field of study, Nan travels for brief visit to the village, never to heard from again. The remainder of the film recounts Richard’s investigation into his sister’s disappearance.
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