• City Of The Dead

    Released by: VCI Entertainment
    Released on: March 29th, 2016.
    Director: John Moxey
    Cast: Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Betta St. John, Patricia Jessel
    Year: 1960
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    The Movie:

    Pretty much an undisputed classic of atmospheric British horror, City Of The Dead (better known in some circles as Horror Hotel) follows a pretty young college student named Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) who, despite the protests from her brother and boyfriend, is researching the history of witchcraft for a paper she needs to write for a class being taught by Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee).

    To help with her research, Driscoll recommends that she travel to the small New England village of Whitewood where she’s able to get the last remaining room in the town’s only inn, run by a strange woman named Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel). As she sets out to explore the village, strange things start to happen around her and it doesn’t take Nan long before she starts to wonder if maybe there’s something going on here that she doesn’t realize and that maybe she’s been marked…

    Tense, dark and moody City Of The Dead moves at the perfect pace and features atmosphere so thick you almost feel like you could cut it with a knife. Christopher Lee is perfect in this role, not the kindly professor he appears to be at first, while Venetia Stevenson makes for a perfectly likable female lead, the right mix of naïve and innocent and believably smart. Patricia Jessel steals the show and delivers some excellent work here, with the various supporting players all turning in excellent performances as well. The cast all seem very committed here, and it makes a difference in the outcome to be sure.

    It’s all set to an effectively creepy soundtrack, that right kind of music to accentuate the more frightening aspects of the film in that it’s creepy enough just listening to it on its own, never mind when it’s accompanied by the visuals. Those looking for a fast paced or gory type of horror film may not appreciate this but anyone with any inkling of appreciation for mood, atmosphere and legitimate suspense will definitely appreciate this one, it holds up incredibly well.

    Note that this is the longer cut of the movie that was restored by VCI and the BFI that includes two minutes of footage not originally found in the US version of the movie.


    VCI presents The City Of The Dead on Blu-ray in a transfer bound to leave some fans scratching their heads. Framed at 1.78.1 and presented in VC-1 encoded 1080i high definition, the framing looks tight in some shots (though not all), which results in people losing the tops of their heads in certain shots. Contrast looks good, albeit brighter (are some of the scenes less atmospheric for the change?) and the black levels are okay but with the movie only taking up 14GBs of space on the 50GB disc, there are some obvious compression artifacts that appear here and there. Which is a shame, because the improved contrast helps and the image is, overall, very clean – maybe too clean, given that liberal amounts of noise reduction has been applied here, giving skin tones an all too familiar smoothed out look more akin to wax than to flesh. It’s not completely sandblasted and it may, in fact, appease those with an unreasonable dislike of natural film grain, but it’s worth mentioning.

    Audio chores are handled by a PCM track in the film’s native English and while not reference quality, it’s fine. Levels are properly balanced and if any hiss makes its way into the track it’s minor and never particularly distracting. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.

    New to this release is a commentary with Bruce G. Hallenbeck. This is, by and large, Hellenback offering up a mix of critical analysis and scene specific trivia and it is a pretty interesting piece. He offers up plenty of background information about the picture, the cast, the director, the studio’s involvement and quite a bit more. Carried over from the 2001 DVD special edition are the legacy commentary tracks, the first with Christopher Lee and Jay Slater and the second with director John Moxey. These two older tracks are obviously more specifically geared towards Lee and Moxey’s personal involvement in the picture and they too are quite interesting. Between the three tracks, there’s a wealth of information relayed to those who want to spend the time here.

    Also included on the disc is the alternate Horror Hotel version of the movie which clocks in at an hour and sixteen minutes in length. It’s a standard definition presentation but still worth checking out if you haven’t seen it before as it’s an interesting alternate.

    Also found on the disc is an interesting Behind The Scenes interview with Christopher Lee shot around the time that the movie was given its special edition DVD release back in 2001. This seventeen minute piece shows the actor in fine form as he engages with fans, signs autographs and answers some questions about his work. More interesting is a second forty-five minute Interview With Christopher Lee where he gives a lengthy look back to his career talking not just about this film but about some of the directors and fellow actors he worked with over the years. Lee fanatics will have heard many of these stories before but for those who don’t know his biographical details as intimately it will likely make for a pretty interesting watch. Carried over from the aforementioned special edition DVD release are a twenty-six minute Interview With director John Moxey and a separate twenty-minute Interview With actress Venetia Stevenson. Again, if you haven’t seen these by way of the older release, they’re certainly worth checking out though Moxey’s interview not so surprisingly covers some of the same ground as his commentary track.

    Rounding out the extras a trailer for the feature, a still gallery, and some liner notes by Mike Kenny alongside menus and chapter selection.

    The Final Word:

    The City Of The Dead is indeed a high mark in early sixties British horror – it’s a classic example of atmosphere, suspense and tension with some great twists, a winning cast and plenty of slick style. VCI’s Blu-ray, however, is a mixed bag – the extras are plentiful and generally interesting but the transfer leaves room for improvement.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Gary Banks's Avatar
      Gary Banks -
      I love this movie but with all of the negativity surrounding the bd I'm reluctant to buy it.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Yeah, looks like my DVD is still the way to go. Like Gary, I love this film.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      It looks slightly better than the DVD, but not by much, and Ian's review really is spot on. VCI needs to hang it up until they can update their equipment (which means: invest some money, VCI, instead of going the cheap route).