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Underwritten as it was by independent producing partners Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, Horror Hotel (1960), or City of the Dead as it was known in its native Great Britain, is widely considered to be the first offering of the nascent Amicus Films... though Rosenberg and Subotsky were at this early date operating under the aegis of Vulcan Films. Surfing the vogue for Gothic horror that had begun gaining altitude thanks to the efforts of Hammer Film Productions, Amicus would complement Hammer's catalog of reconstituted Universal classics (The Curse of Frankenstein , Horror of Dracula , The Mummy , The Phantom of the Opera ) with a line of portmanteau chillers modeled after the example of Ealing's Dead of Night (1945) - among them Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), and The House That Dripped Blood (1971). This earlier effort distinguishes itself from the Amicus brand by being a stand-alone tale, an invigorating admixture of H.P. Lovecraft and P.T. Barnum, that has too long suffered unjust calumny for being a purported rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).
In Horror Hotel, winsome young heroine Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson, daughter of veteran film director Robert Stevenson, in full-on Nancy Drew mode) arrives in a fog-laden Massachusetts backwater famous for witch trouble in the late 17th Century to do a little academic research, principally to win favor with her martinet university mentor (Christopher Lee, in a bracing cameo). Getting too close to the secrets of the eldritch Whitewood and its elusive populace (several of whom try without success to warn the poor young girl away), Nan is abducted while exploring a subterranean passageway that runs beneath the warped floorboards of the Raven's Inn, manhandled by faceless specters in monks' robes, dragged screaming and begging for her life through the dark labyrinth, and laid roughly on a crude stone altar (an analogy to rape would not be inappropriate, given that Nan's blouse is torn open in the struggle, exposing ironically saucy lingerie), where a ceremonial dagger is driven into her heart at the stroke of midnight. Elapsed time: 38 minutes, 39 seconds.
Released in the United States a year after Psycho's September 1960 premiere, Horror Hotel had critics of the day crying "Aha!" and pointing out what they took to be borrowings from Hitchcock: in addition to the killing off of the film's presumed heroine early on, a (largely) creepy hotel setting, an investigation undertaken by the dead protagonist's surviving sibling, and a shocking final image of a desiccated female face. What was not commonly known in the States at the time was that Horror Hotel -- or, more accurately, City of the Dead -- had come first. Entrusting the picture to first-time film director John Moxey (who would later change his professional name to John Llewellyn Moxey on the recommendation of a numerologist), Horror Hotel began filming at Surrey's Nettlefold Studios on October 12, 1959 - a month and a half before principal photography began on Psycho at Universal in Hollywood. The film was premiered in the United Kingdom in September 1960, the same month that Psycho went into general release, meaning all similarities between the films were entirely coincidental.
Taken on its own pulpy terms, Horror Hotel provides solid entertainment for fright film fanatics - "Just ring for DOOM service" trumpeted the American ads, which played up the hospitality angle. The cramped confines of Nettlefold studios - where Brian Desmond Hurst had shot the eerie Yuletide classic Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim - were well-suited to capturing the clammy claustrophobia of the fictive Whitewood: the discomfiting Raven's Inn (where a queerly undercranked dance anticipates the ballroom ghoulishness of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, 1962), the tumbledown house of worship (whose sole inhabitant is blind priest Norman Macowan, in his final film role), the disastrously landscaped kirkyard (where the film's incendiary climax occurs), and an outlying service station where George Zucco would not be out of place pumping gas. Horror Hotel's opening scene, in which an accused witch (Tony award-winning stage actress Patricia Jessel) is dragged to the stake by a torch-wielding Puritan mob, cannot help but remind the faithful of the prologue of Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) but given that Bava's film had its Italian premiere in mid-August of that year this is yet another magical coincidence.
Though Christopher Lee's participation is limited, the iconic actor acquits himself nicely in a suit-and-tie role requiring an American accent. The supporting cast - nominal hero Tom Naylor, second female lead Betta St. John (a veteran of the Broadway production of South Pacific), and big band singer Dennis Lotis - is merely functional but bringing up the rear with sinister aplomb is British character player Valentine Dyall (later the gruff groundskeeper of Robert Wise's The Haunting, 1963) as Jessel's saturnine familiar. Director of photography Desmond Dickinson had limned Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) with a similar atmosphere of misty dread and went on to lens such cherished Psychotronica as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Konga (1961), A Study in Terror (1965), Berserk (1967), Trog (1970), and the equally fog-bound Tower of Evil (1972). Brooklyn-born screenwriter George Baxt had contributed additional dialogue to Hammer's The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and would provide an uncredited polish to the Richard Matheson-Charles Beaumont script for Sidney Hayers' Night of the Eagle (US: Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962), based on Fritz Leiber, Jr.'s novella Conjure Wife.
By 1960, there were not enough films about satanic conclaves to constitute a subgenre. Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (1943) revolved around devil cults but the shrouded specters of Jacques Tourneur's The Leopard Man (1943) were harmless penitents. Don Sharp's Witchcraft (1964) draped its coterie of cauldron stirrers in robes and cowls and Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1968) brought Christopher Lee back to the fold, albeit this time on the side of the angels. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) conjured up a veritable Season of the Witch, with black masses and human sacrifices the soul of the plots of The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Enter the Devil (1972), Race with the Devil (1975), The Devil's Rain (1975), and Satan's Cheerleaders (1977). John Llewellyn Moxie's 1975 NBC-TV movie Conspiracy of Terror exposed a Satanic cult flourishing in Los Angeles' sprawling Simi Valley while Christopher Lee returned to lead infernal followings in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) and Peter Sykes' To the Devil a Daughter (1976).
By Richard Harland Smith
Sources: English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby (Reynolds & Hearn, Ltd., 2000) John Llewellyn Moxey audio commentary, City of the Dead DVD (VCI Entertainment, 2001) Christopher Lee audio commentary, City of the Living Dead DVD (VCI Entertainment, 2001) Betta St. John interview by Tom Weaver, I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television (McFarland & Company, Ltd., 2009)