Here at Mmmmmovies, we love the public domain. Any time we can pick up a handful of creaky old classics we've never heard of for less than a lunch off the Super Value Menu, the Duke and I are a couple of happy aristocrats. Because let's face it--if you pay $15+ for a special edition dvd of some obscuro horror flick and it turns out not to live up to your expectations, you feel not only cheated, but more than a little like a jackass for buying it. On the other hand, if you buy a 10 movie set for $5, or better yet, 50 Chilling Classics for $20 (deal of the century, folks! Get it NOW!) and they're not that great, you're out 40, 50 cents per movie, tops. But if three or four of them turn out to be keepers, well, you feel like some kind of movie shopping god! And believe me--though you do have to sit through a lot of crap in these compilations, there are plenty of great flicks hiding on them too. A truly amazing ratio, really.
So anyway, before I discovered the 50 Chilling Classics, the Duke and I had already raided the Halloween displays at Dollar Tree for their entire line of double feature horror discs. 50¢ a movie--how can you go wrong? Answer: you can't. Sure, I sat through Blood Thirst, but I also discovered the amazing Castle of Blood and got my first exposure to Naschy with Vengeance of the Zombies and Dr. Jekyll vs. the Werewolf. That's value that can't be measured, folks! Anyway, one of these Dollar Tree discs was a Christopher Lee double feature, and we love Chris, yes we do. So the top half of the Lee double feature was the 1960 B&W chiller, Horror Hotel. Was it worth the half-dollar? Read on.
Short answer: yes. Despite not achieving the lofty heights of the aforementioned wonders, Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead, was a pretty cool, very atmospheric tale of witchcraft and mystery, with plenty to recommend it to the b-movie connoiseur and fans of the cinematically Satanic. Well worth the dollar I spent for the disc all on its own, it's a movie that, even though I won't be hunting down a better version for my permanent collection (a la Castle of Blood), I'm still glad I bought, because I wouldn't have seen it otherwise and for a fan of old horror flicks, it's definitely worth seeing.
The movie starts out with almost exactly the witch-burning scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except in Puritan New England (the township of Whitewood) rather than medieval England, and done seriously instead of for camp. Elizabeth Selwyn is being condemned for consorting with the devil, and her accomplice in the crowd, Jethrow Keane, can do nothing to help her without facing the Big Barbecue himself. It's actually a very well-filmed scene, with the condemned woman in heart-rending terror (you don't know yet whether she's guilty or not) as the townspeople taunt her with animalistic glee, their angry faces looming gargoyle-like out of the thick fog that blankets the streets of Whitewood (more on this later). The b&w cinematography is great, and when Elizabeth is on the stake and Jethrow says a prayer to Lord Luc1fer to aid her, there's a nice creepy moment before the expected "I curse you and all your descendants!" trope. Nothing groundbreaking, even in 1960, but still effective and tone-setting. I was very much drawn in.
Flash forward to the present day (i.e., 1960) where a very young and handsome Christopher Lee is relating the tale of Elizabeth Selwyn's immolation to a group of students in his college office. He's giving an informal lecture series on the history of witchcraft in New England, and one of the students, Nan Barlow (a wolf-whistle-worthy blonde in the classic Hitchcock mode), is obviously more into the subject than the others. I have to say right off the bat that Lee is just arrestingly intense in this role, doing an understated American accent pretty much perfectly. It's clear from the first moment that his sympathies lie with Selwyn and his antipathies toward the religious fools who burned her, but that's okay, this is a horror movie, not a whodunit. Nan's boyfriend, Tom, makes light of the story, and is treated to a patented Lee glare that I'm surprised didn't singe his eyebrows off. Nan, however, stays after class to discuss her term paper with Professor Lee, who helpfully tells her of a little town off the beaten path where she can probably find some great historical documents--yes, Whitewood. He recommends the Raven's Inn, where if she mentions his name to the proprietress, Ms. Newless, she'll be sure to get good treatment.
After this Nan's brother Richard (always referred to as "Dick"), a professor of science at the same college, comes in and pretty much belittles Lee with his skepticism. Bad idea, of course, but they never learn, the fools. Anyway, Nan is a headstrong, independent young woman, and over her brother and Tom's objections she decides to go to Whitewood to do her research.
The trip to Whitewood is a real tour-de-force, as Nan, in her motor-car listening to the jazz on her wireless, is enveloped by the thickest, soupiest fog I have ever seen on screen. Really, it's dangerous to be out driving in, so she's lucky it's only poor-man's process. We get a wonderful gas-station attendant who gives her directions, and then an even more wonderful shot of her arriving at the crossroads to find a mysterious stranger waiting there, needing a ride to Whitewood. why, he looks just like Jethrow Keane! And his archaic manner of speaking is most strange...
Well, I think I'll stop with the blow-by-blow synopsis there and leave the rest to your discovery. Suffice to say they don't take kindly to strangers in Whitewood, and Professor Lee had his own reasons for sending his nubile young student there. More highlights include a great "Crazy Ralph" character in Whitewood's blind old priest, with a wonderful "This town is evil!" monologue before disappearing into the shadows of the church; a very surprising choice of underwear by our plucky young heroine; a Hitchcockian shift in focus that I admit caught me by surprise; and one of the wilder climactic battles I can remember seeing in a movie of this type and vintage, wherein a mortally wounded character (complete with knife sticking out of his back) uses a 6-foot cross as a sort of holy bazooka on the coven of witches, causing their robes to burst into flame! Crazy stuff, and actually pretty exciting. And the last shot before the credits recalls Hitchcock once again, so that even though this movie came out the same year as Psycho (only 2 months later) it seems incredible to think that it wasn't referencing that film specifically (though without the cross dressing angle...you'll see what I mean).
Apart from Lee and Selwyn and the surprisingly strong and independent Nan, the acting here is really hit and miss. Dick is obviously a stage actor with little screen know-how, as he over-plays every emotion and always booms from the diaphragm. Both he and Tom seem to be having trouble holding onto their American accents, as well. That's okay, though, b/c the real stars of the movie are the town of Whitewood itself and that incredible fog. I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that Horror Hotel is far and away THE FOGGIEST MOVIE I'VE EVER SEEN. Period. It's foggier than The Wolf Man, which was damn foggy. It's foggier than any of the Universal classics. Hell, it's foggier than THE FOG. And what a fog it is! The dry-ice budget for this film must have been completely off the charts. But it works--Whitewood is dreamy, surreal, a place out of time, and the journey there is a journey to the dark and sinister past. Again the cinematography is great, very atmospheric and creepy at times. And Lee, while not the "star" of the picture, really steals the show.
So 2 thumbs easily for Horror Hotel. Not anything earth-shattering, but very well made and entertaining, and worth seeing at least once. Bonus points for a scene with Christopher Lee in a Doctor Strange cape sacrificing a bird to Satan, then having to clean it up quickly before his students come in. Check it out.