Friday, July 14, 2017

City of the Dead

City of the Dead also known as Horror Hotel is a 1960 British horror film directed by John L. Moxy.  Moxy was from Argentina, the heir to an important and powerful shipping company in that nation.  Moxy worked largely in television and City of the Dead, shot in atmospheric black and white, looks a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone -- it's claustrophobic, entirely confined to the soundstages of Shepperton Studios, and features big close-ups of sinister faces glaring or leering at the camera.  The sets are decorated to within an inch of their lives:  huge masses of cobweb block subterranean passages and the studies of the college professors that the film observes are clogged with scary-looking African masks, weird fetish objects, and unsettling pictures.  The evil professor's library features an engraving from Hogarth's print series Marriage ala Mode prominently displayed (why? I don't know) and the Ravens Inn where much of the action takes place sports a plaque behind the check-in desk noting that the witch Elizabeth Selwyn was burned on this spot in 1692.  The gloomy exteriors, all of which are decidedly interior to a studio, feature swirling white ground fog that comes up to the hips of the characters, a meteorological phenomenon that makes no objective sense at all but that casts a bizarre, even surreal, light on the proceedings. Another curious element in this film is that it is set in Massachusetts although shot with British actors -- periodically, the actors forget where they are supposed to be and lapse into their original accents; this is weirdly disconcerting.

The narrative is structured like Psycho, a film that seems to have exerted a powerful influence on Moxie.  A blonde co-ed is fascinated with witchcraft.  Her sinister professor, played by a very cadaverous, emaciated and young Christopher Lee -- he looks a lot like Max von Sydow -- encourages her to go to a remote New England village, Whitewood, to research her term paper.  Her boyfriend, a typical gee-whiz sort of frat boy, disapproves, but the maiden ignores his advice and sets forth to spend two weeks in this hamlet.  On the way to that village, ground fog inexplicably rises from the earth and the girl encounters a nightmarish hitchhiker, another gaunt and cadaverous man that she blithely picks up.  (He's the boyfriend of the witch burned in 1692, a woman who has now gone into the hospitality business to run the town's inn.)  Whitewood is a ruin where people stand motionlessly, buttock-deep in the mist, posing like figures from Last Year in Marienbad.  There's a half-mad vicar in a ruined church and it's pretty clear that the town, locked in a perpetual temperature inversion ground-fog-inducing weather system is a place that a rational person would immediately flee.  (There's one normal person in this accursed City of the Dead -- another perky blonde who runs an antiques store, seemingly unaware that she is surrounded on all sides by undead zombies, witches, and unrepenitent devil-worshipers; the girl is like the similarly sweet-faced and naïve Munster family daughter in the TV show -- of course, a riddle:  what is she doing among these grotesques?)  The devil-worshipers snag the blonde co-ed about half-way through the picture, slitting her throat and, apparently, drinking her blood.  (It's like a very low-budget version of Janet Leigh's death in Psycho and features a sinister Inn, a bit like the Bates' Motel but more picturesque.)  The dead girl's brother and boyfriend, concerned about the coed's disappearance, then, leave Collegeville and travel through the pesky ground fog to the City of the Dead.  The boyfriend is startled by the apparition of a laughing woman burning at a stake and he crashes his car.  The townspeople are just about to slit the throat of the perky blonde in the antique store when the dead coed's brother, a scientist (we know this because he has a microscope on his table) intervene.  The film's climax, involving the undead in their eerie black capes bursting into flame is quite effective -- the severely wounded brother of the dead girl staggers through the puddles of ground fog toting a big cross on his shoulder.  The "shadow of the cross" makes the zombies burn brightly -- although the very gloomy lighting doesn't cast much of a shadow at all to the point that I assume "shadow of the cross" is metaphoric, meaning something like the "close proximity" of a cross. The film ends with a "reveal" that is a low-rent homage (or steal) from Psycho -- a hooded figure sits in a chair motionlessly; when approached, her hood falls aside and we can see her ravaged face.  In Psycho, the figure turns out to be the mummy of Norman Bate and she's genuinely very scary -- in City of the Dead, the corpse is just the leading witch, a handsome, heavily made-up middle-aged woman, with some soot smeared on her cheeks and brow to suggest that she's been incinerated.  (In fact, it looks like a bad sunburn.)  The effect is definitely underwhelming.  Parts of the movie are reasonably scary -- there is an unsettling dance conducted in the tight quarters of the Ravens Inn in which zombies silently cavort to primitive jazz and rock and roll.  The faces glaring at the heroine out of the mist are creepy.  There's a hilarious sequence when the coed decides to go to the zombie dance.  She removes her nightgown to reveal that's she's been lounging around in a punitively corseted bustier complete with garter-snaps for her stockings -- it's a startling injection of pure exploitation into the film.  There's no budget to this film at all -- in the opening scene when a witch is burned at the stake, we see leering townspeople but the flames never really get anywhere near the woman being executed and she vividly curses the village, turning its inhabitants into the City of the Dead.  A good reaction shot, particularly a blonde girl screaming at the top of her lungs, is always more effective than the following shot that, rather prosaically, shows us what she is screaming at -- it would be better and more bold to just use the reaction shot, the loud, shrill scream, the dilated eyes, the contorted features, than to show the apparition that has induced this scream.

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