Monday, January 21, 2013

DVD Review: SCREAM THEATER VOL. 4 - THE CITY OF THE DEAD/LEGEND OF THE WITCHES

SCREAM THEATER VOL. 4 
THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) + LEGEND OF THE WITCHES (1696) 

Label: VCI Entertainment
Region Code: 0 NTSC

Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 78 Minutes / 72 Minutes 
Video: 16x9  (1.66:1) /  4x3 (1.33:1) 
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono
Cast: Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Betta St John, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson
Director: John Moxey / Malcolm Leigh

John Moxley's Gothic  chiller City of the Dead (1960) opens with a fantastic post-credit sequence featuring a witch hunt and burning at the stake in a deeply fog-drenched forest, the witch Elizabeth Selwyn is taken and burned at the stake, before her demise she makes a pact with Lucifer for her soul. Years later a young college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) travels to the village of Whitewood in Massachusetts over winter break on the recommendation of her professor Alan Driscoll  (Christopher Leeto do research for a paper on witchcraft. Once there she takes up residence at the Raven's Inn run by Mrs. Newlis. Nan finds the hotel occupied by some strange occupants indeed, namely the reincarnation of the infamous witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) who was burned at the stake in the 17th century. The blonde cutey has unknowingly found herself marked for sacrifice by a coven of the witch's followers. While poor Nan goes the way of Psycho's Janet Leigh her brother Dick (Dennis Lotis), friend Lottie (Ann Beach) and boyfriend  Bill (Tom Naylor) descend upon Whitewood in hopes of finding what has become of her.

That's the set-up, it's simple and effective. This is a first rate British chiller steeped in fog, cobwebs and creepy atmosphere. It hearkens back to a time when horror was creepy and not so steeped in visceral gore and blood-letting, as such those with preconceived notions of something a bit more gruesome may be turned off. Those in the mood for a well-paced atmospheric chiller are in for a treat. We have a small rural village, a cast of creepy characters, the old dark hotel, stony walled catacombs laden in cobwebs and a great cast. Christopher Lee's Prof. Driscoll is of course more involved that it would first appear, Patricia Jessel as the virgin murdering witch fantastic - the stand-out performance and Venetia Stevensen as the smartly naive Nan draws you in right from the beginning. All this creepy build-up pays off at the end with a great finale, this is a top notch chiller, a definite high recommend.

The second feature on this double bill appropriately enough is director Malcolm Leigh's documentary Legend of the Witches (1969). It traces the historical origins of witchcraft in moon-worship and the witches’ legend of creation, it also traces some of these pagan rites to their eventual adoption by Christianity. On paper this seemed like a great double bill but I just found this documentary a bit too dry for me to sink my teeth into at one point tuning it out completely and listening to Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality album with the TV muted, which made for some great imagery in the background which was altogether more interesting to me than watching the doc itself.

The Scream Theater double feature is bare-bones meaning you lose out on the features from VCI's single-disc editions which is not too insignificant, The City of the Dead edition comes with a feature length Commentary with actor Christopher Lee, a 45-minute Interview with Christopher Lee plus the Legend of the Witches contained a trailer, the latter of which is not a problematic but that commentary and interview with icon Christopher Lee is missed! This is a great set at a bargain price but if extras are a concern I say skip the dry Legend of the Witches and snag the stand alone City of the Dead DVD from VCI and let's hope at some point for a Blu-ray, this is an attractive feature and I would love to see it pop in 1080p. 

Both films look fantastic in black white presented in their proper aspect ratio. The City of the Dead look particularly fantastic, a Gothic chiller steeped in fog and cobwebbed creepiness that has been painstakingly restored by VCI (with the cooperation of the British Film Institute) and is presented fully uncut; containing more than 2 blasphemous minutes of additional footage cut from the U.S. version, titled Horror Hotel. 3.5 Outta 5 

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