Sunday, April 1, 2012

Birth of Amicus

THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)

In an astonishing final sequence, Tom Naylor uproots a graveyard cross and stumbles toward an intended sacrifice; as the shadow of the cross falls upon cowled satanic acolytes, they combust.

IN 1692, the small village of Whitewood, Massachusetts sees the burning of Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and consort Jethro Keene (Valentine Dyall) for witchcraft. Jumping to the modern day, Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) recommends his hometown of Whitewood as an ideal place for student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to research her paper on the black arts. Staying at the Ravens Inn Hotel - which is managed by Mrs Newless (also played by Jessel) at the exact spot where the burnings took place - Nan discovers that all the other guests only appear as darkness falls, hears chanting beneath the floorboards of her room, and is abducted into the catacombs. Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) investigate her disappearance; while Bill suffers a car accident and remains on the sidelines, Richard meets Patricia (Betta St. John), the daughter of the aging local Reverend (Norman Macowan), and discovers that Selwyn still presides over a coven in the locale.

Working alongside the British company Vulcan, Americans Milton Subotsky (who co-produces and provides the original treatment) and partner Max J. Rosenberg would later found Amicus, and many horror historians look upon THE CITY OF THE DEAD as the first unofficial Amicus release. If only that studio continued with such quality; amusingly Driscoll states early on "The basis of fairy tales is reality, basis of reality is fairy tales," which acts as a much more apt mandate for Subotsky and Rosenberg's later films of the fantastic. At a time when Hammer had established the colour period horror film, THE CITY OF THE DEAD, in contrast, is a present era monochrome gem, drawing from the stage bound atmospherics of Val Lewton. Consequently, the film exists in a TWILIGHT ZONE-like alternative universe, directed with finesse by John Moxey, who is greatly assisted by the atmospheric photography of Desmond Dickinson. On the down side, the picture suffers from laden performances by Stevenson, Lotis and Naylor, and Ken Jones' jarringly inappropriate partial jazz score.

Released in America as HORROR HOTEL with the tag line "Just ring for Doom Service!," this seemingly acknowledged the film's narrative similarities to PSYCHO. A hit in Britain, the black and white film suffered in the US, with the distributor cutting the picture and inserting 3-D footage from Julian Roffman's THE MASK.

The major bone of contention with THE CITY OF THE DEAD is the connection to PSYCHO. Like Alfred Hitchcock's chiller, a young women travels to a hotel, only be be killed in the middle of the feature. Another similarity is friends embarking to find her as heroine 2 narrowly escapes with her life; even the final shot of Mrs Newless' flame-ravaged corpse echoes the mummified Mrs Bates in her rocking chair. In his book English Gothic, Jonathan Rigby surprisingly fights Subotsky's corner by listing production start dates - THE CITY OF THE DEAD began on 12th October 1959 compared to PSYCHO's on 30th November - but, as Philip Nutman explains in Little Shoppe of Horrors #20, Robert Bloch's source novel was actually first published in 1959, with Hitchcock's film following the structure of the book. Amicus would later have a fruitful relationship with Bloch - and this certainly indicates that Subotsky would have been aware of the narrative - but the situation is clouded further by screenwriter George Baxt claiming it was his idea to prematurely kill Nan.

THE CITY OF THE DEAD was described by Lee as "an American Gothic with a Lovecraftian flavour," with Whitewood replacing that writers fabled Dunwich as a cursed township. Indeed, the writings of H. P. Lovecraft have seldom been successfully transferred to the screen, struggling to find the right mix between the hinted horrors and the money shot for the expectant audience. It is ironic that the most memorable slices of Lovecraftian cinema haven't been direct adaptations of his stories at all, rather films that have attempted to portray the author's trademark otherworldly ambiance. Perhaps the most Lovecraftian of all is Nigel Kneale's THE STONE TAPE, a television play layered in ageless terror. Yet while Whitewood may lack the true depth of the Cthulhu mythos, figures loom in and out of dense fog like chess pieces in a game of much greater scale.