Oh stop! This would be more effective at midnight with howling winds and crashing thunder and even then it wouldn't frighten anyone.
--Professor Barlowe

Hammer Studios made a name for itself in the late 1950s and early 1960s as purveyors of Gothic horror, became more sexualized in the early 1970s, halted production in the 1980s, and has tried to reestablish itself in the twenty-first century, with mixed results. Its most lasting contributions to the horror genre are probably Christopher Lee's Dracula, Lesbian Vampires as a genre1, and The Wicker Man, one of the most notorious horror films ever made.2

The Wicker Man did not spring fully-formed out of Hammer's head. Hammer slowly nailed the pieces together, with two significant precursors: City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960) and The Witches aka The Devil's Own (1966). The City of the Dead came first, made while they were still focusing on re-envisioning The Universal Monster Cycle.

Hammer moves to New England (though they shot the entire film in the Merry Old country) to tell the tale of a young woman whose academic research into witchcraft brings her to a small Massachusetts town.

In a shocking development, things aren't what they seem.

The plot, then, we've seen before. An innocent(ish) outsider ends up in a small community that hides a horrific secret. H.P. Lovecraft's influence is very clear. Somewhat more originally, we have a Creepy Old Guy at the Gas Station who warns the protagonist to go back, years before Friday the 13th's Walt Gorney immortalized the type, or before The Cabin in the Woods riffed hilariously on it.

City of the Dead also contains some curious parallels with Psycho, but as both films were in production at the same time, it seems unlikely that one influenced the other

The film features strong editing, with some creepy cuts and moments, especially around the killings. The film-making is, however, uneven. The British actors' American accents slip at times. The set and some of the non-killing scary moments feel very clichéd and, during certain mood-setting scenes, current audiences may think more of Scooby-doo or a Chick tract than anything genuinely frightening.

Other aspects of the visuals beguile. New England has a lot of fog in February but, apparently, no snow or even chilliness. The film also features a gratuitous shot of its young ingénue changing, revealing her unexpectedly slinky lingerie. While the filmmakers undoubtedly expected a certain reaction, the shot is so aggressively gratuitous it may evoke a rather different one from some viewers.

Acting varies. Christopher Lee is in fair form here. Some of the other performances recall community theater, and the obvious soundstage shooting in certain scenes does nothing to dispel the overall effect.

In the end, The City of the Dead (also released as Horror Hotel) proves a mediocre production which nevertheless holds a noteworthy place for the way it presaged and influenced later horror movies.

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Writers: George Baxt, Milton Subotsky

Dennis Lotis as Richard Barlow
Christopher Lee as Alan Driscoll
Patricia Jessel as Elizabeth Selwyn / Mrs. Newless
Venetia Stevenson as Nan Barlow
Tom Naylor as Bill Maitland
Betta St. John as Patricia Russell
Valentine Dyall as Jethrow Keane
Ann Beach as Lottie
Norman MacOwan as Reverend Russell
Fred Johnson as The Elder
James Dyrenforth as Garage Attendant
Maxine Holden as Sue
William Abney as Policeman

1. Yes, they had precursors, most obviously Sheridan Le Fanu, but I would argue that Hammer mainstreamed the trope, making it a recognizable subgenre.

2. With possibly the worst remake in cinematic history: few B-movies have ever been as bad as Neil LaBute and Nicholas Cage's 2006 disaster.

For We All Float Down Here: The 2017 Halloween Horrorquest

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