Before Britain’s Amicus Productions was officially formed by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg in 1962, a horror film entitled CITY OF THE DEAD was released in September, 1960. Co-produced with a story by Subotsky, it did poorly at the box office in the UK — even more so in the U.S. where its title was inexplicably changed to HORROR HOTEL. But with its fog smothered sets standing in for a small New England town, and a fine performance by Christopher Lee (along with a talented British cast trying to do American accents), the movie has become something of a cult classic. While it highly sensationalizes the 17th century witchcraft mania in the then American colonies by merging it with bloodthirsty satanists who somewhat comically chant Latin in monks’ robes, CITY OF THE DEAD managers to capture in its lean 78 minutes an entertaining modern gothic — quite different than the better known period pieces of the time made by Hammer or Roger Corman.
Subotsky (who would go on with his Amicus Productions to produce many famous portmanteau horror films (like TORTURE GARDEN , THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD , and ASYLUM )), grew up in New York City and began his career in television. He would go on to make the movies ROCK, ROCK, ROCK in 1956 — for which he wrote nine songs! — and another rock n’ roll film, JAMBOREE, in 1959). CITY OF THE DEAD — made after Subotsky moved to England — was thus quite a departure. And it is actually quite a good gothic tale (perhaps the result of his fondness for writers like Robert Bloch — who actually wrote the three aforementioned Amicus films!).
Subotsky’s knack for spinning a good horror story is really no surprise. A man of many interests — and much energy — he was like a sponge, absorbing so much of the pop-culture (and pulp fiction) of his time. Stars like Lee, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price all admired him for his dedication to filmmaking (on the cheap!), He undoubtedly had knowledge of the work of other studios at the time (like Hammer), and was known for his tireless efforts to keep many movies in production at once.*bosomed
But CITY OF THE DEAD is quite unlike anything else in Subotsky’s body of work.
The film opens with Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), a student of history in a class taught by Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee), anxious to learn more about satanism and witchcraft in New England — so much so that she takes her professor’s suggestion to travel to the town of Whitehaven in Massachusets in order to work on a paper exploring the topic. Driscoll recommends that she stay at the Raven’s Inn, an establishment run by Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel) — secretly (to all but the audience) the reincarnated witch, Elizabeth Selwyn, who cursed Whitewood, and is the leader of Whitewood’s coven!
Barlow is soon dispatched with on Candlemas Eve, leaving her brother (Denis Lotis), her boyfriend (Tom Taylor) and Whitewood’s antiques dealer, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John) — who had loaned Nan a book on witchcraft to help her with her studies — to solve the mystery of co-ed’s disappearance. Why Russell thinks nothing of this in a mysterious town where her own grandfather, the town’s blind pastor, warns all he can about the lingering evil in Whitehaven is part of the film’s charm. The endless fog and zombie-like townspeople isn’t a giveaway that something is amiss in Whitewood? Suffice to say that Driscoll is (unsurprisingly) revealed to be part of the coven, Newless / Selwyn burns like she was supposed to in 1692, and good triumphs over evil.
For all of its themes of witchcraft, devil worship, and sacrifices to Satan, CITY OF THE DEAD is a surprisingly tame film. There’s no blood on screen. Unlike PSYCHO (also released in 1960), a descending blade is only shown here for a moment before a humorous cut to a woman slicing up a birthday cake. And unlike many of Hammer’s offerings, there are no big bosomed women in diaphanous gowns. Stevenson, for example, is buttoned up and fully clothed throughout the picture (except for one brief change from a robe into a party dress [exploited by the studio, however, in a famous promotional still for the film]). But even then, it’s only cheesecake. As for gore, there’s very little; the burning witches at the end aren’t much more than lightly charred. And the skeleton at the end? Borderline comical.
It is by no means a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking. Nor particularly unique, as it may be just too much of a coincidence that CITY OF THE DEAD has plot elements similar to three other films released in 1960. There’s a reincarnated witch in Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY. The shadow of a cross burning the undead as in Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA. And the (at first) lead character, an attractive blonde, murdered in the first act just as Janet Leigh’s character is in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (based on a novel by Robert Bloch!).
Was Subotsky aware of these other films — each in theaters earlier in the year than CITY’s September release date? It’s impossible to know — not only because we’re not sure what the original script contained and when exactly it was written, but Subotsky had a reputation for being aware of what others were doing, working fast, knowing what sold, using the same actors as other studios, building on existing well-known stories (see Subotsky’s “Wish You Were Here,” a take on “The Monkey’s Paw” in his TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)… even recycling sets (as did Corman, Hammer, and many filmmakers, to be fair).
This is not to say Subotsky wasn’t an original. If anything, his approach to making a movie was uniquely his own. And it would serve him well in the horror anthology movies on which Amicus would build its reputation well into the nineteen seventies. His is a story as interesting as Corman’s. His production company more than mere shadow of Hammer. And CITY OF THE DEAD stands on its own as a cult film to be enjoyed and admired.
*Brian McFadden’s book about Amicus is a great read for more on Subotsky and the films he made.