Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vamp or Not? Horror Hotel

Whilst Horror Hotel (an awful title), also known as City of the Dead, has been in my awareness for a while I had simply thought it a witchcraft movie; one to see as Christopher Lee is in it but there was no rush. However my friend Leila mailed me and suggested it was prime for a ‘Vamp or Not?’ Given the tagline of, “300 years old! Human blood keeps them alive forever!” you can see why. I dutifully downloaded it from the archive.

Firstly, let us look at the lineage of the film. Made in 1960, it was the first from Amicus Studios – though you will not see their name on it as they were called Vulcan Productions at the time. The director was John Llewellyn Moxey and it was his feature debut. As well as a long standing ‘jobing’ director on TV, Moxey later directed the Night Stalker and I, Desire.

The film begins in 1692 and the witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is dragged from her home to cries of ‘Burn the witch! Burn the witch!’ She calls out to Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall) but, when asked if he has consorted with her, he denies her. She is dragged to a stake. However Keane has not forsaken her wholly, below his breath he prays to Satan to deliver her. We hear of the sacrifice of someone called Abigail, and that the fires will cleanse Selwyn’s soul of its lust for blood.

Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is telling the story of the burning of Elizabeth Selwyn in the village of Whitewood to his class. One of them, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), is quick with comments but then he is only there as his girlfriend Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is taking the class. Driscoll asks her to stay behind for a moment. He is very taken with the aptitude that her work is showing and she admits that she wants to spend some of the upcoming vacation staying in a New England village, researching the town records and seeing what she can dig up.

He recommends Whitewood and gives her directions. He suggests that if she mentions his name to Mrs Newless of the Raven Inn she’ll get a room. Her brother Professor Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) comes in and she tells him of her new plans. He reminds her that they were meant to be at cousin Suzy’s birthday but she insists that she’ll be there for the event. It is clear that Dick, as he likes to be known, has no time for superstitious mumbo jumbo.

So, leaving Dick and Bill behind she heads off to Whitewood. Now I don’t intend to recount the witchcraft aspects that we witness except to say that we have a variant of the spectral hitchhiker, who happens to be Jethro, and Mrs Newless is clearly Elizabeth Sewell. We discover that Whitewood is perpetually shrouded in fog, that Driscoll hails from the town and that a blind priest (Norman Macowan) still maintains the rundown church and his granddaughter, Patricia Russell (Betta St John) has just moved to town since her grandmother died.

In fact Patricia lends a book to Nan, who discovers that witches would lure victims by taking something belonging to them (in her case, for yes she is lured, a bracelet) and leaving behind a dead bird and a sprig of woodbine. They would then sacrifice the lured one and drink their blood at the strike of thirteen. The sacrifices started again some three years after Elizabeth was burnt at the stake and witnesses swore she had returned. There is a hatch in her room in the inn and she opens it when she sees hooded folks wandering around outside her window… as you do.

She is grabbed and when the church bell strikes thirteen Elizabeth sacrifices the girl. As the knife swings down we cut to Suzy’s cake being cut (and of course Nan is overdue). However we are quite a way into the film and the film does a Psycho here by switching the main character perspective, in this case from Nan to her brother Dick. Bill has him ring the inn but, as it is not listed, they call the police.

Long story, avoiding the bits that have no vampiric element, short; Dick ends up in Whitewood having met Patricia. We discover through her grandfather that the witches maintain their eternal life through two blood sacrifices per year one on Candlemas Eve (when Nan was killed) and the other on the Witches Sabat – that night. Of course Patricia is the next target. The old priest also has the way of killing the witches (apart from stopping the sacrifice, which in itself will kill them as they will not get the required blood on time).

They can be killed by the shadow of the cross, and the priest tells Dick an incantation also. It appears that any old cross shadow will not work – just as well as they do like to traipse through the graveyard. But say the incantation (which I guess tells the universe that you are wielding the cross as a holy weapon) and the shadow causes the witches to burst into flames. Alan Driscoll – we discover – had been burnt as a witch during the witch burnings.

So we have a group of witches, some of them certainly risen from the grave (Elizabeth and Driscoll). They must make two sacrifices to Satan per year and, importantly, drink the blood of said sacrifice – admittedly this is within ritual strictures. This maintains their immortality. During Dick’s rescue of Patricia he discovers that they are quite impervious to such mortal weapons as guns. However the cross, when wielded with purpose as established through an incantation, will burn them. Fail to sacrifice (and thus feed) at the correct time and they die, reverting to the form they had when they died, for example burnt.

This all sounds very vampire genre and whilst we do not see blood drinking that was not uncommon for when the film was shot, even with vampire films. The film itself is dripping with atmosphere – well it would be being in black and white with all that fog – but a lot of its power comes from Patricia Jessel’s performance as the witch who has a fine line in stares. Not up there with, say, Black Sunday but definitely worthwhile and I would say one of those witchcraft films that strays most definitely onto vampiric territory.

The imdb page is here.


I Like Horror Movies said...

Ack cant read the review just yet, I have this on order from DeepDiscount and its due to arrive any day now, will reproach the review as soon as I get the chance!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Dragonmanes, let us know what you think (hopefully there won't be too much reproach)and let us know if you agree with my 'Vamp or Not?' assessment

Gabriel said...

Hello Taliesin,

I saw this movie a few years back, and I own it on dvd. I was quite taken with the atmosphere of this film, I totally loved the fog enshrouded town. Three things stick out for me in this film:

The first is I was totally shocked when the killed Nan near the start, what a curveball! It's funny because they impress upon you that she was the heroine of the piece and then she buys it, I thought that was awesome and impressed me a great deal.

Secondly, in regards to the town and the inhabitants I cannot help but see a total Lovecraftian influence there. With the fog and the old houses along with the secret generational cult, it reminded me of The Shadow over Innsmouth for starters. Mrs Sewell certainly had the "Innsmouth Look"!

Lastly, this was the first film I had seen Christopher Lee in a proper speaking role (I'd seen this before Lord of The Rings)so I was used to his stoic performances in the Hammer Films. To see him actually have a part with a decent script made me quite happy.

I give this film 8/10.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Gabriel

It is an impressive film (I'm not sure about 8 out of 10 but it is well above average) and one wishes that Amicus had kept to this quality of movie.

I can see what you mean re the lovecraft and I suppose it is that New England aspect that helps build on this.

I do like Christopher Lee - be it simply stoic, downright uncommunicative or with a decent amount of script, always a good watch.

Bill Dan Courtney said...

I have never seen this but the by the vidcaps it is certainly something I would enjoy just looking at. I have not seen too many Chris Lee b/w films now that I think of it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Bill, the great thing about this is that you can just grab the film via the link above. Enjoy