Friday, March 25, 2016

THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) (Blu-ray Review)


Label: VCI Entertainment

Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 78 Minutes
Video: B/W 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1) 
Audio: English LPCM Mono 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles 
Director: John Moxey 
Cast: Christopher Lee, Dennis Lotis, Betta St John, Patricia Jessel, Venetia Stevenson

Synopsis: A college student, Nan Barlow is researching the history of witchcraft. Taunted by her brother and fiance, who have voiced their concern over her silly notions, Nan arms herself with resolve and drives into the small New England village of Whitewood. She is glad that at least she was able to count on the support of her professor. A bit anxious but consumed with curiosity, she will soon embark herself on the journey of her life! 

John Moxley's classic Gothic chiller The 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, where the witch Elizabeth Selwyn (
Patricia Jessel) is burned at the stake, before dying she makes a vociferous pact with Lucifer for her soul, cursing the descendants of those who have sent her to her fiery grave. 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 kindly professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee, Horror Express) to do a bit of research for a paper on witchcraft in the area. Once there she takes up a room at the Raven's Inn run by Mrs. Newlis (Patricia Jessel again). Nan finds the hotel occupied by some strange occupants indeed, namely the reincarnation of the infamous witch Elizabeth Selwyn who was burned at the stake in the 17th century. Young and naive Nan unknowingly finds 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 concerned boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) descend upon Whitewood in hopes of finding what has become of her.

That's the simple set-up for this Gothic chiller, simple but effective stuff. This is a first rate British horror movie steeped in wafts of fog, cobwebs and intense creepy atmosphere. It hearkens back to a time when horror was creepy and not  just drenched in visceral gore, 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 wonderfully eerie treat, directed by John Moxey, who wold go onto direct the classic '70s TV movie The Night Stalker, which sewed the seeds that would become the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The movie also has a top notch cast including horror icon Christopher Lee as Professor Driscoll, who of course is way more involved than it would first appear. Patricia Jessel is fantastic as the virgin murdering witch, by far she was the stand-out performance for me. Young Venetia Stevensen draws you in right from the beginning of the story as the sweetly naive Nan. The creepy slow build-up pays off at the end with a great amped-up finale that will leave you very satisfied. 

Audio/Video:  The City of the Dead arrives in 1080p HD having been restored by VCI with the cooperation of the British Film Institute in the proper, complete and uncut form, including two minutes of additional blasphemy which had been cut from the truncated U.S. version, which can also be found on this disc. Presented in the 1.66 aspect ratio the movie looks pleasant enough in motion with a good clarity and sharpness. The black and white cinematography s fantastic, the fog-shrouded fright film pops in 1080p. However, closer inspection reveals the absence of film grain, marred to a degree by the overly aggressive use of digital noise reduction. Brightness has also been boosted which only serves to accentuate the waxy lack of fine detail in the facial features and contrast issues. While not the most film like presentation, the overly-smooth new transfer is still overall quite nice with the notable exception of the digital scrubbing and boosted brightness. Audio comes by way of a lossless linear PCM Mono 2.0 with optional English yellow subtitles. Dialogue is crisp and clean for the most part, the atmospheric Douglas Gamley score sounds great, he was a composer would go onto to compose scores for many noteworthy Amicus productions including The Vault of Horror, From Beyond the Grave and Madhouse among others. 

Bonus content on the disc begin with no less than three audio commentaries, two of which where ported over from the 2001 DVD from VCI, one with icon Christopher Lee and another with Director John Moxey is more technical in nature while Christopher Lee covers a lot of ground, the star was in fine form on this track. There is also a new commentary from British film historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck who I am not familiar with, but he covers some interesting background, history and asides about the cast and crew, which adds value to the disc. 

Also brought over from the previous release are interviews with actors Christopher Lee and Venetia Stevenson, plus director John Moxey. There is also a new behind-the-scenes interview with Lee from 2001, which is around the time that VCI's previous DVD came about, he seems to be signing autographs and speaking about the movie, not sure if this is from a convention or something at the distributors headquarters, but it is a nice candid interview with Lee recalling the worst write-up he ever received from the British Press. 

As with the recent Blu-ray of Bob Clark's Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things VCI have included a shorter version of the movie in standard definition, the truncated U.S. version known as Horror Hotel, which doesn't look great but for the sake of completeness there it is. The disc is finished-up with a 2-minute trailer for the movie, a gallery of home video artwork, movie posters and images from the movie, plus text crawl video liner notes by reviewer Mike Kenny. About the only thing I would have hoped for would be a sleeve of reversible artwork, maybe the cool green schemed "Ring for Doom Service" Horror Hotel poster art, which would have been very cool. 

Special Features: 

- Horror Hotel, the American Version of City of the Dead (76 Mins) SD 
- Audio Commentary by Bruce Hallenbeck
- Audio Commentary with actor Christopher Lee
- Audio Commentary by Director John Moxey
- Behind the Scenes Interview with Christopher Lee (2001) (16 Mins) 
- Interview with Christopher Lee by Brad Stevens (45 Mins) 
- Interview with Venetia Stevenson (20 Mins) 
- Interview with Director John Moxey (26 Mins) 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 Mins) 
- Photo Gallery (3 Mins) HD 
- Video Liner Notes by Mike Kenny, Film Reviewer (4 Mins) HD 

The City of the Dead (1960) is a top-notch Gothic chiller, widely considered the direct precursor to Amicus Films, produced by Milton Subotsky and his future Amicus partner Max J. Rosenberg, a company that would go onto rival Hammer in terms of output, making a slew of '70s anthology horror movies. The new Blu-ray from VCI is stuffed with value-added bonus content, though marred slightly by a waxy transfer, but there is more than enough value on this budget minded Blu-ray to warrant a high recommend. Next to receive the HD treatment from VCI is the '70s paranormal-shocker Ruby with an unhinged Piper Laurie!. 4/5