THE CITY OF THE DEAD Blu-ray Review – Gothic Horror And Christopher Lee, Need I Say More?

Starring Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis

Directed by John Moxey

Distributed by VCI

There are a handful of actors whose films I can watch without knowing a single thing about the production aside from their involvement. I’ll watch absolutely anything featuring Vincent Price, for example. Another name on that list is Christopher Lee, whose British baritone voice and commanding presence made him one of the silver screen’s most famous faces for nearly 70 years. Lee came to fame due to his work with the legendary Hammer Films, but he was also known to hop over to rival studio Amicus for features, usually paired with the great Peter Cushing. Amicus officially came to be in 1962, but the first film founders Max. J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky produced together, which was done under the banner of Vulcan (though seen by many as the first “true” Amicus film), is a wicked tale of witchcraft, co-starring Lee, called The City of the Dead (1960).

Originally conceived as a television pilot, the script was beefed up but the resulting film still has a small, personal quality to it and plays similar to a well-made TV movie. The town set clearly exists on a soundstage and provides the same aesthetic vibe as a stage play. The story is sinister and pockmarked with shocking flourishes, culminating in an ending that equals the all-out mayhem of something wild like The Devil’s Rain (1975). Atmosphere leaches off the screen, immersing viewers in a classic black-and-white Gothic horror tale that feels like it could have been an extended episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).

Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is condemned as a witch in the town of Whitewood, Mass. in 1692. The townsfolk burn her at the stake, but during her final moments Elizabeth makes a pact with Satan to put a curse on the town, gaining immortality for a lifetime of evil servitude. The story segues out into Prof. Alan Driscoll’s (Christopher Lee) classroom, where the professor is regaling his students with Elizabeth’s story. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), one of Prof. Driscoll’s students, is captivated by the tale and expresses a desire to learn more, so Driscoll suggests she visit the town itself for more thorough research. Nan drives there, alone, picking up a mysterious hitchhiker along the way, and eventually winds up at The Raven’s Inn. There, she is greeted by a Mrs. Newless… a woman who looks an awful lot like Elizabeth Selwyn.

Not knowing a thing about this film aside from Lee’s co-starring role, the shocks (think 1960 folks) are genuine and a few of the twists feel more dangerous than most horror pictures from this era would be comfortable executing. A couple of the “they’re a witch?!” reveals are expected and unsurprising, but those moments are secondary to the perilous position in which many of the actors find themselves. Nan seems like the quintessential leading lady, but witchcraft is serious business and her naiveté is costly. This isn’t a film interested in pulling punches. Since Lee is really the only big name in the cast, and his role is limited to bookending the film, viewers will find themselves thinking anyone can be a victim at any moment because City proves early on anyone can wind up Dead.

The spooky, haunted atmosphere is choking, enveloping the town of Whitewood in a thick, milky haze of fog and shadow. This isn’t a film that excels at terror but it is adept at creating an environment and establishing a mood. It’s just plain ol’ creepy, constantly, with weird, wide-eyed townsfolk and that ever-present feeling of opposition in a town where strangers are clearly not welcomed… unless, of course, you fit the bill as the type of person the citizens sacrifice each Candlemas Eve. Witchcraft films are especially intriguing to me because it opens up the story to a whole world of dark magic, where the unexpected can convincingly happen and things are almost always not as they seem.

It took three years for The City of the Dead to reach American shores, and by that time it was retitled Horror Hotel and cut by a few minutes. Now, that might not sound like a lot but when those minutes contain crucial dialogue explaining the conceit of the entire film, well, the decision for excision seems insanely idiotic. The U.S. cut literally removes the line where Elizabeth Selwyn makes her deal with the Devil to curse the town; without that knowledge the film doesn’t even make sense. A more fun bit of U.S. release trivia is that, yes, this is the film that inspired Glenn Danzig to write a Misfits song of the same name.

VCI presents City with a new 2K scan that is reportedly sourced from a recent 4K negative scan done by Cohen Film Collection, which was the source for Arrow Video’s U.K. release. The 1.78:1 1080p image offers a slightly tighter aspect ratio than Arrow’s release, which was 1.66:1 and is cited on IMDb as the proper aspect ratio. The slightly zoomed framing doesn’t feel cramped or compromised, though. Contrast offers a striking balance between light and darkness. Film grain adds a cinematic flair and doesn’t appear scrubbed or heavily reduced. The print is super clean, allowing for a pristine picture throughout. VCI isn’t always known to nail their home video releases but this is a clear winner and easily one of their best offerings on the format.

Audio is presented via an English LPCM 2.0 mono track. There is some hissing on “ch” and ”th” words, but dialogue is otherwise clear and understandable. At one point later in the film the sound sync appeared ever-so-slightly off but it seemed to quickly correct itself. The classic terror score is effective but unremarkable, though the use of bass, drums, and a choral chant near the finale adds a chilling complement to the on-screen ritual. Subtitles are available in English.

There is an audio commentary with Christopher Lee included, along with a 45-minute interview with the man, too. A theatrical trailer in standard definition is the only other extra feature.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with Christopher Lee
  • Christopher Lee Interview
  • Theatrical trailer
  • The City of the Dead
  • Special Features


Ample atmosphere and strong scripting, along with a capable cast, make City more than just another witchy B-picture. Lee’s role is more limited than his billing suggests but the story sucks viewers in so closely they won’t notice his frequent absence. A/V quality is stellar, thanks to the use of a recent 4K restoration, and the bonus features, though limited, are a win for fans of the late Lee.

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