“For Whitewood, time stands still!”
In late 1960, on a forgotten stretch of earth, a beautiful young blonde woman from out of town rents a room in a small out of the way hotel and brutally stabbed at the hands of the hotel’s seemingly kind owner. Sometime later her boyfriend and sibling come looking for her and their search leads them to the hotel known as…”The Raven’s Inn”. Wait! What?!
No we’re not talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; we are talking about another film with a similar set up: Horror Hotel. Filmed at about the same time as Psycho, but across the sea, John Llewellyn Moxey’s Horror Hotel aka City of the Dead is a stand on its own masterpiece of Occult cinema. The film has unjustly over the past 50 years, been labeled a Psycho rip off by some (the same types that say “Psycho” is not a horror movie, but a psychological thriller).
I first saw the film in 1998 on Halloween night. I was heading out to a Haunted House with a friend and thought we should set the mood with something spooky. This film didn’t disappoint. Horror Hotel has all the trappings that chills our bones. A fog laden town with a secret, a creepy Inn, terrifying abductions, witches and burning crosses, all underlined by the booming voice of a young Sir Christopher Lee.
Lee plays Prof. Alan Driscoll, originally from the small town of Whitewood, MA. While covering local history and its connections to witchcraft, he intrigues one of his best students, Nan Barlow. Nan, a petite young blonde, insists that she goes to Whitewood, to study and write her final paper. Driscoll recommends a hotel that she can stay at the Raven’s Inn. This is the last bit of brightness we see in the film.
Nan’s journey into eternal darkness is mimicked in the lighting and gorgeously foreboding set pieces. Her drive to Whitewood is in total darkness layered in thick fog. She stops to pick up an elderly man wandering in the darkness himself. For those viewers who laugh at the implausibility of a young woman picking up a hitch-hiker in the middle of total darkness, remember, it was a more innocent time. Sure, for all she knew, the kindly old man could have been the Albert Fish of Whitewood; after all, I don’t recall seeing any young kids in the town. I’m just saying.
Once Nan arrives in town, she stops in front of an old cemetery and her elder hitch-hiking companion disappears. She wonders into the Raven’s Inn, which is across from the cemetery and meets Mrs. Newless played confidently by Patricia Jessel.
Nan’s room is off the lobby and quite small and creepy all on its own. Strange occurrences continue till Nan decides to have a “Scooby Doo” moment, that’s right, she turns into a snooping kid. There is a trap door in her room which she has been told not to open, you know what that means, time to break out the flashlight.
This production by Amicus pictures is rich with foreboding darkness and likeable characters. Thanks to Dennis Lotis (Richard Barlow), Tom Naylor (Bill, the boyfriend), and Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), we are engaged in the search for Nan and the learning of her fate. Though the body count is low, the deaths are poignant, and therefore ring in a true sense of horror and loss. The main theme, though not exactly hummable, will stick in your head for some time after.
A couple of notes:
Elizabeth Selwyn’s spoken bargain with Satan is cut from all “Horror Hotel” prints. This dialogue was intended to set up the basic background of the town of Whitewood, but was found to be too controversial for the U.S. However, the completely uncut film can be found under the original title “City of the Dead” available from VCI Home Entertainment.
The classic New Jersey horror punk band The Misfits recorded a song for their 1980 album “12 Hits from Hell”. Though the album was never released, the song can be found on Misfits: Collection ll and remains a fan favorite.
As time goes on and horror continues to evolve, the less and less these films see broadcast. Do yourself a favor, buy, not rent, Horror Hotel today. You can certainly do worse for twice the price (and if you’ve seen a lot of theatrical horror last year, you probably have). Till next time, remember to Fright for your Life!