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The Witches of Whitewood
A UK/US region 0 DVD comparison review of THE CITY OF THE DEAD by Slarek
 
One thing older horror movies have over their modern equivalent is that they had better voices. From the classic monster movies of Universal Studios through to the golden days of Hammer, horror films featured stars who made their names in the genre and sometimes remained forever associated with it. And they all had terrific, instantly recognisable voices, from Bela Lugosi's Hungarian lilt and Boris Karloff's soft English purr to the mischievous twang of Vincent Price and authoritative baritone of Christopher Lee. Lee in particular had and still has a commanding screen presence. His first appearance as the Count in Terence Fisher's 1958 Dracula remains one of the best of all screen entrances, and he's one of the few actors I instantly believed as Mycroft Holmes, a man reputed to be even smarter than his famed brother Sherlock. He's someone I'd still love to meet and sit with and talk to for a few hours – I have no doubt it would be an enthralling and enlightening experience. Lee could talk about anything and make it sound interesting. His own life and work is a story in itself – check out his fascinating autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome if evidence is required.

But a quintessential element of Lee's voice is it's Englishness, a fact not affected by his ability to speak eight languages – five of them fluently – and his subsequent early casting in the odd ethnic role. And yet in John Moxey's 1960 City of the Dead he plays an American professor. Now some of you might be wondering why, when you have such a magnificent voice at your disposal, you would saddle it with an American accent? Indeed, why not cast an American actor in the first place? Well in the case of this particular movie there are a couple of very good reasons. First is that while the story is set in America and thus required American characters, the film was made by a British film company at Shepperton Studios in London. And then there's a budget of allegedly just £45,000, hardly enough to allow for the import of even a small-scale American star. After The Curse of Frankenstein and particularly Dracula, Lee and his close friend and co-star in these films, Peter Cushing (another marvellous voice, of course), were the nearest thing the UK horror industry had to bankable names. But Lee is also a fine, fine actor, and no director worth his salt would pass up an opportunity to work with him if the role suited, whatever the nationality of the character.

The story kicks off back in 1692 in the city of Whitewood, Massachusetts, whose pious citizens are about to burn a woman named Elizabeth Selwyn for witchcraft. On her way to the stake she appeals to one of the gathered onlookers, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall, yet another splendid voice), for help and suspicion momentarily falls on him. Has he been consorting with a witch? He denies it and his word is apparently good enough, so the execution proceeds. But as the pyre is ignited, Keane begins mumbling appeals to Lucifer to save Selwyn from the flames and the sky blackens. Before her consummation by fire, Selwyn makes her pact with the Devil and angrily curses the city and its inhabitants.

Leap forward to modern times and this moment in history is being recounted by professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) to his students as part of a course in the history of witchcraft. One of them, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), wants to research her paper in more detail and asks Driscoll for a good place to start. He suggests she visit Whitewood itself, now a small, out-of-the-way village, and despite the protestations of her scientifically minded brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and cynical boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor), off to Whitewood she heads.

Everything about her approach to the village is unsettling. The area is shrouded in thick fog, a gas station attendant she asks for directions is surprised anyone would actually want to go to Whitewood, and a stranger she picks up on the way (whose face should be familiar to the audience by this point) vanishes from her car on arrival. Whitewood itself offers little comfort for the inquisitive traveller. There's Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), the frosty proprietor of the village inn, who initially claims that there are no free rooms but on the mention of Professor Driscoll's name suddenly discovers a vacancy. And there's Lottie (Ann Beach), the constantly terrified and mute chambermaid, who is scolded by Mrs. Newless when she tries to pass a message to Nan. What might this girl know or be trying to say? There's the sightless local priest, the Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan), who barricades Nan's entrance to the church and urges her to leave. And there are the citizens themselves, who drift through the fog at night and stop to stare silently at Nan as she passes. An ideal holiday destination this clearly is not. The only friendly face she encounters is that of the Reverend's granddaughter Patricia, the recently arrived proprietor of a bookshop that I can't imagine has ever had a single customer until Nan walks in. Even she can't afford to buy the book she wants, a weighty tome on witchcraft that she ends up borrowing and becomes so enraptured by that she fails to spot the warnings it offers regarding her own possible fate.

There can't be many horror fans who will taken by surprise by much of the above. Modern day tales of witchcraft require characters to be sceptical and walk blindly into situations that the audience will recognise instantly as dangerous. As genre devotees we often execute an about-face on belief when it comes to our engagement with a movie – in the real world, if someone tells you that a cup fell from a table because a ghost pushed it off youwould probably mock them, but if it happens in a genre film then of course it was a ghost, you silly sceptical fool. I've got a cellar and a loft in my house and I'll happily go into either with just a lamp to guide me, but the moment someone does likewise in a horror movie, their daftness almost has me screaming at the screen. And so it is with Whitewood. We've seen it before and we thus know what's going to happen, but one strengths of City of the Dead, especially for its time, is that it lulls you into a false sense of certainty and then blindsides you. It's a turn of events that warrants a comment or two, but also one that should not be revealed to newcomers. And so...

Now listen. If you are planning to see the film and don't want to know how the plot unfolds, then I seriously suggest you skip the next paragraph. Really. This discussion is for those who know the film or its plot. Look, I'll make it easy for you – just click here and the page will scroll down past it.

Are we alone now? Good. Those of you who are familiar with the way the film pans out will know that over halfway in it throws a curve ball by unexpectedly killing off what we have come to assume is its central character, sacrificed by the Whitewood coven as part of their ritual of everlasting life. The similarity to the same but more widely celebrated carpet-pull executed by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho has been widely remarked on, but the parallels don't end there. Blonde-haired Nan travels from home to an out-of-the-way spot to stay at a dodgy hotel and is killed by the establishment's proprietor. The disappearance is investigated by two men and a woman, a group that includes a sibling and a boyfriend, who are falsely informed by her killer that Nan departed the day after she arrived. Two of them even approach a figure at the end and get a shock and scream when it's face is revealed. Wow, those co-incidences are piling up, aren't they. The obvious supposition is that there is some serious borrowing going on here and that the film is trading on the success of Hitchcock's masterpiece. There's just one thing: the two films were shot almost simultaneously in different countries with little knowledge of the other's existence, let alone content. Uncanny, huh?

OK, we're back on safe ground. No more serious spoilers, I promise.

The story provides the framework, but City of the Dead's well-deserved status as a cult favourite lies in its execution, notably John Blezard's creepily suggestive art direction and Desmond Dickinson's extraordinary monochrome cinematography. Between them they make it feel almost as if Nan has stepped out of the real world and into one created from her own nightmares, as figures stand motionless in thick fog or shuffle silhouetted into the graveyard for a midnight mass. Even the flickering of firelight as Nan first enters the inn has strangely demonic overtones, while her descent into the blackness of cellar below her room, guided only by a narrow beam of light from her torch, is as tense as any such scene in more recent horror cinema. The imagery and atmosphere don't just belie the film's budget, they make a mockery of it – rarely if ever have you seen a horror film that looks or feels quite like this.

But if Dickinson and Blezard give the film its distinctive visual style then all credit to first-time feature director John Moxey for knowing just what to do with it. His camera placement repeatedly intensifies Whitewood's creepiness, from his arrangement of multiple characters in frame to his thoughtful and effective use of personal viewpoints (Nan's arrival is in town is made all the spookier by the motionless figure distantly illuminated by the car's headlights), while his inventive use of editing delivers a John Carpenter-esque frisson when an eerie late night dance comes to the sort of abrupt ending that only film can deliver.

The cut-it-with-a-knife atmosphere is very effectively counterbalanced by performances that have conviction but are also, for the most part, nicely underplayed, no mean feat for a partly English cast having to work with (mostly convincing) American accents. Venetia Stevenson (whose accent is real) in particular makes for a likeable and believable Nan, while Lee quietly shines as the professor who may be more than he seems, and Patricia Jessel walks a fine line as the sinister Mrs. Newless, nicely avoiding the sort of melodramatic interpretation such a role almost invites. Only Tom Naylor as boyfriend Bill Maitland seems to struggle a little, but he makes amends in a strikingly visualised climax in the Whitewood graveyard.

The first production by independent company Vulcan, who after three films became Hammer's only real rival Amicus, City of the Dead is a fine example of the sort of restrained, imaginative and smartly made British horror film (Sidney Hayers' 1962 Night of the Eagle was another) that should have led the way forward for the genre. But the ball was dropped and picked up by the likes of Roman Polanski and George Romero, whose 1968 Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead marked the end of UK horror film dominance and the beginning of a new wave that would put America back on top.

the discs

This review looks at both the VCI US DVD and the new Redemption UK 2-Disc Special Edition. Although the latter appears to have been sourced from the former, there are a couple of significant differences. I'm willing to concede that the difference in extra features may be down to licensing issues, but before we get to that there's an issue that I will accept no excuse for.

sound and vision

Sourced from a good quality print, the anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer on the VCI disc is first rate. Initially it seems almost as if pure blacks and whites are absent in favour of a rich palette of grey tones, but once we get to modern night-time Whitewood the contrast is bang on, with deep, solid blacks and well rendered highlights that handsomely showcase Desmond Dickinson's gorgeous cinematography. There are a few dust spots, but you rarely even notice them, and the print is otherwise clear and the detail impressively crisp. For a low budget film of this vintage, this is an exceptionally good job.

The Redemption disc has been sourced from what looks like the same digital master, but has undergone NTSC to PAL conversion that causes blurring on movement and just takes the edge of the contrast found on the VCI disc. But the real crime committed here is that the widescreen transfer is letterboxed rather than anamorphic, reducing the resolution by a third. Given the high quality of the anamorphic transfer on Redemption's Sacred Flesh DVD and the fact that VCI's transfer was mastered from a 35mm print owned by the British Film Institute, this is both surprising and hugely disappointing.

The 2.0 mono soundtrack is the same on both releases – functional and clean, with only a slight hiss to show it's age.

extra features

The extra features on the Redemption disc are consigned to disc 2 (more on that later) and have largely been licensed from the VCI original. Most of the extras on the VCI disc have been included on the Redemption disc, but with two major exceptions.

Commentary by Actor Christopher Lee (VCI disc only)
Before you get too excited, there is one small misjudgement by those recording the commentary that stops this from being the killer track it should have been, and that's the decision to sit Mr. Lee in front of a film he hasn't seen for over 40 years and shut off the soundtrack. Lee thus repeatedly wonders out loud what is being said by the characters and is bemused by actions that would be clear if he could hear what they were saying. In an insult to injury move, the soundtrack has been included for our benefit, and is occasionally loud enough to compete with Lee for our attention. But in other respects this is an enjoyable and very worthwhile inclusion. Lee spends a little too much time describing what we're watching, but moderator Jay Slater regularly interrupts with questions that give rise to some fine stories and consistently interesting background detail on the filming. Anecdotes abound and are not consigned to this film, his work with the likes of Tim Burton, George C. Scott and even George Lucas also getting a little coverage. There are some engagingly humorous moments, not least when the subject of Star Wars comes up and Slater specifies Attack of the Clones. "Yes, well..." Lee begins in response to a title he was not impressed with, "..you'll have to speak to George about that." He also discusses the nature of good and evil in the modern world, and suggests, contrary to popular opinion (but agreeing with Camus in his review of Casino Royale), that Timothy Dalton was the actor best qualified to play James Bond. "Ian Fleming was my cousin," he reminds us, "so I know what Bond was supposed to be."

Commentary by Director John Moxey (VCI disc only)
VCI's second coup is to convince John Moxey to come into the studio to share some memories of the shoot, and although there are quite a few long pauses early on, the track gets busier as it progresses and proves an involving listen. There's plenty of information on the actors and a fair amount on the technical details, notably Dickenson's lighting and photography – "Every first time director should be lucky enough to have such a great cinematographer work for him," he remarks. He fills us in on the work he's done since, and offers an opinion on some subsequent genre films, some of which he likes – Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Jaws, Rosemary's Baby – but others he's less happy with – The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Friday the 13th, and just about anything that throws gore at the screen. It's all good stuff, and adds to the VCI disc's completist feel.

Interview with Christopher Lee (45:07)
Lee is interviewed by fan-faced genre critic Brad Stevens, who also supplies the noddies to cover up the editing. With his work on City of the Dead covered in the first commentary, Lee here looks back at his career and the directors and actors he's worked with, and gets seriously miffed at his continued typecasting by the media. There's a little bit of rambling and repetition at the end, but Lee is one of the most interesting talkers out there, so I'm not complaining. One particular note of interest is that the interview was conducted shortly after the completion of Lord of the Rings but before its release – Lee predicts it's going to be huge.

Interview with John Moxey (28:18)
The lively Moxey revisits some of the ground covered in his commentary, but there's enough new stuff here to keep this interesting, especially the details of his early career and his subsequent work in America.

Interview with Venetia Stevenson (19:50)
The actress recalls her role as Nan Barlow and suggests that the main things she brought to it was an American accent. She covers her career, including her abandonment of acting to become a mother and later a production manager – the work she is most proud of is Walter Hill's Southern Comfort.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:31)
Includes the final shot of the film and giveaways, so don't watch this first.

Photo Gallery (VCI disc only – 3:23)
A rolling gallery of stills, behind-the-scenes photos and promotional material.

Biographies (VCI disc only)
Slowly scrolling biographies and filmographies for John Moxey, Venetia Stevenson, Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis and Betta St. John. Dennis Lotis's biography is spectacularly brief on detail.

Star and Director Biographies (Redemption disc only)
Not biographies but filmographies for Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Denis Lotis and John Moxey.

Promo Art (Redemption disc only)
10 pages of promo material.

Stills (Redemption disc only)
7 stills, not that big.

summary

A memorable and very stylish British horror film that too few appear to have seen. Well now's your chance. A 2-disc Special Edition may sound like a fan's wet dream, but Redemption have fumbled the ball here, a revamp of VCI's disc that loses two of its best extra features and the anamorphic transfer. This is particularly galling given that the American release was mastered from a British film print, only to be standards converted and downgraded for the UK DVD release. And it's becoming an old gripe, but how is it, exactly, that VCI can fit more onto one disc that Redemption can on two?

The City of the Dead

UK 1960 .
78 mins
director
John Moxey
starring
Dennis Lotis
Christopher Lee
Patricia Jessel
Tom Naylor
Betta St. John
Venetia Stevenson
Valentine Dyall

DVD details
region 0 US
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Christopher Lee commentary
John Moxey commentary
Christopher Lee interview
John Moxey Interview
Venetia Stevenson interview
Trailer
Photo gallery
Biographies
distributor
VCI Video
Release date
23 October 2001

region 0 UK
video
1.66:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Christopher Lee interview
John Moxey Interview
Venetia Stevenson interview
Trailer
Biographies
Promo art
Stills
distributor
Redemption
Release date
16 April 2007
Review posted
18 April 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews