Satanic worshipers and an old witch maintain a stranglehold over “The City of the Dead” (1960)

By on December 18, 2018

John Llewellyn Moxey’s creepy 1960 British horror film The City of the Dead features Christopher Lee as a college professor of demonology who moonlights as the deliciously evil head of a witch coven in a small Massachusetts hamlet, sending his unwary students there to conduct research (“field work”), only to become sacrificial victims to a powerful resurrected witch.

Watch this atmospheric black & white Gothic cult classic — released in England the same year as Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho, a film with which it shares a few stylistic elements, but not released in the U.S., as Horror Hotel, until June 1963 — on Night Flight Plus!

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The City of the Dead is set in the supernaturally fog-enshrouded fictional New England town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where a cult of Satanic worshipers and a powerful witch maintain a stranglehold over the secluded decaying village.

It turns out that “Mrs. Newless” (Patricia Jessel), the proprietress of a lodge called Ravens Inn, is in reality “Elizabeth Selwyn,” a witch who was burned at the stake in 1692 but she was resurrected through a pact with the Devil, who gave her eternal life in exchange for a promise to create only evil.

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Young, naive students — including beautiful “Nan Barlow” (Venetia Stevenson) — who are assigned to research local legends of witchcraft are victims unwillingly sent to their deaths by “Professor Alan Driscoll” (Lee).

Lee’s Driscoll is a gruff instructor of American legends and myths, but he also presides over the human sacrifices being performed on Candlemas Eve, a Wiccan holiday falling on February 1st.

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The City of the Dead comes from a screenplay by George Baxt, who originally wrote it as a pilot for a TV series to star Boris Karloff.

Producer Milton Subotsky — who produced classic schlocky films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and They Came from Beyond Space — added the romantic subplot about the boyfriend who goes looking for Nan after she goes missing, in order to expand its length.

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About The City of the Dead, Lee once said:

“It really was a very good picture in many ways, insofar as it did combine ancient superstition and ritual with modern American university life. It had very much the witch-haunted flavor of Lovecraft’s stories. I think my greatest achievement was my American accent. It’s a very difficult thing for a British actor to do. They usually exaggerate it beyond belief, and vice versa.”

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The brilliant Tony-winning actress Patricia Jessel — who plays both “Mrs. Newliss” and “Elizabeth Selywn” — only made a handful of films before her untimely death from a heart attack in 1968 (she was just 47 years old).

Here, she holds everyone in her power through demonic rituals, and the scenes with hooded witches, fog-filled streets, and creepy moonlit cemeteries — particularly Tom Naylor’s character “Bill,” Nan’s boyfriend, who is seen carrying a giant cross towards Lee and the witch coven — give this film an atmospheric tough that will send chills down your spine!

Douglas Gamely’s jazzy original score — featuring s a lot of mournful chanting — great enhances the film’s eeriest scenes.

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The film also stars Patricia Russell as “Betta St. John,” the heroine of the film’s second half, and Dennis Lotis, as Stevenson’s brother “Richard” and Professor Driscoll’s colleague, sneering at anything that can’t be tested and proven by science.

The City of the Dead also features Valentine Dyall, playing a weird New Englander (“Jethrow Keane”), quite similar to the character he plays in The Haunting (which also featured Venetia Stevenson).

Read more about The City of the Dead below.

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John Llewellyn Moxey

From the mid-1950s through the end of the 1960s, film and TV director John Llewellyn Moxey — who at the suggestion of a numerologist began using his middle name — worked in British film and TV, specializing in thrillers with the occasional horror film project.

His best film from this era is The City of the Dead, which was made in Great Britain with a largely British cast, although it was set in America.

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Moxey also directed the excellent carnival-set crime thriller Circus of Fear (1966), re-titled Psycho-Circus for U.S. film audiences.

Moxey mostly worked in American television from about 1970 onwards, notably directing including another masterpiece of modern day horror, the 1972 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker.

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The popularity of that film, a memorable urban vampire hunter saga starring actor Darren McGavin as the investigative news reporter “Carl Kolchak,” spawned the popular TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”

Sadly, it only aired in primetime during the 1974-1975 season, although it gained a cult following through re-runs.

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Moxey also directed the pilot episode of “Charley’s Angels,” as well as episodes of “The Saint,” “Mannix,” “The Mod Squad,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Magnum, P.I.” “Kung Fu,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and many, many more.

Moxey also directed memorable TV movies like A Taste of Evil (1971), Home for the Holidays (1972), Genesis II (1973), Where Have All the People Gone? (1974) and No Place to Hide (1981).

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Scenes from The City of the Dead were used in the Iron Maiden video for “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter” (1990).

Other bands/artists — including King Diamond, UFX, Rob Zombie, and the Misfits, who wrote a song called “Horror Hotel” — have also been inspired by the film.

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Moxey’s The City of the Dead would go on have a major influence on many horror films that followed, particularly many which were made by the Italian horror film industry (we’re big fans of those films here at Night Flight HQ).

Watch The City of the Dead on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.