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CITY OF THE DEAD -blu ray from V.C.I. review



CITY OF THE DEAD -VCI 78 min – BLU RAY s.r.p. $24.98 released March 29,2016


When CITY OF THE DEAD was announced as a Blu Ray by V.C.I., there was a great deal of excitement about the release of this classic horror film. After years of dark, or overly gray public domain releases of this witchcraft gem, there was at last going to be a version on blu ray that would restore the movie to its original glory.

Since its release, fandom has turned into as rabidly critical as Comic Book Guy from The SIMPSONS (‘worse version- ever!’). Now it is possible that the framing of the film is not 1.66:1, but what most impresses me about the VCI print is how incredibly sharp the print is,
allowing you appreciate the superb cinematography by Desmond Dickinson (who was used to filming in fog, having lensed the Oscar winning Best Picture of 1948, Laurence Olivier ‘s HAMLET (Two Cities/Rank)). I have never seen this film look so superb, allowing us to see the wood grain on the door of the church and making the figures entering in and out of the smoke look nearly three dimensional. I have seen this film on television, beta, vhs, dvd and even on the big screen and have never been so in awe of its look.


CITY OF THE DEAD began lensing in October 1959. It was shot over six weeks entirely in one of the largest of Shepperton Studios stages. With a budget of only £45,000 (approximately $126,427.24 in 1959 conversion), fog covered the limited set pieces. What the fog couldn’t cover was that it was lensed in a stage without sound proofing so that it sounds as clear as it does is a credit to sound mixer Richard Bird (later doing sound for MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1965, A.I.P.)


For the five people who never seen CITY OF THE DEAD , the film opens in the late 17th as Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel, winner of a Tony Award in 1955 for playing the role of the wife in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, a role later made famous when Marlene Dietrich played it in the film) is burnt at the stake for being a witch. Yes, we know, no witches were hung in the colonies or buried under rocks, but let’s face it, burning is more cinematic.

Centuries later, a young woman, Nan Driscoll (Venetia Stevenson), at the urging of her college professor (Christopher Lee), goes to the town of Whitewood where the fiery execution took place. The cast, with one exception, are all British, so their accents are quite impressive (except on words like ‘going”).

Look at the sharper picture image. You can see the wood grain.Um,hello?

Look at the sharper picture image. You can see the wood grain.Um,hello?

There is much controversy about the similarities of certain plot points between CITY OF THE DEAD and Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”. Many said that C.O.T.D. began filming in several weeks before the Hitchcock film of PSYCHO (Paramount) and so that the British film could not have been influenced by the American picture. True enough, but Bloch’s novel was published earlier in the year by Simon & Schuster and was a best seller. Screenwriter and crime novelist could easily have been aware of the book and unknowingly incorporated parts of it into his story. Some sources say ex patriate Baxt had written the script for a Boris Karloff series (could it have been an unfilmed tale for ‘The Veil”?) but producer Milton Subotsky rewrote it into feature length. Subotsky was as a great reader as well as script doctor to many screenplays that he produced and perhaps he worked in the bits that reflect the other better known thriller.


Milton Subotsky was also an American who moved to England to produce movies, and partnered with Max Rosenberg (with whom he had done an American films ROCK, ROCK, ROCK (1956, Vanguard /DCA) to form Vulcan Productions, which later became the better known Amicus Productions.

It was released in the U.K. by British Lion in September 1960. While it got positive reviews, it was not a big money maker. and thus was not released in the U.S. until September 1962 by small distributor Trans-Lux. Trans- Lux had begun as an art house company (releasing Fellini’s LA STRADA in 1954, but made most of their money distributing cartoons Felix the Cat, The Mighty Hercules, and Speed Racer to television. For its American release, the already short film (78 minutes) was trimmed by almost 2 minutes and retitled HORROR HOTEL, and given a garish campaign of ghouls staring out of the poster, with tag lines like ‘Ring for Doom Service”.


Somehow, the film was allowed to slip into public domain and thus the various quality versions proliferated. Usually when a film slips into P.D., studios are less likely to spend money on restoring the film.

Luckily V.C.I. believed in horror fans willingness to spend a few extras dollars that they went all out on their beautiful Blu Ray. They went all out on their restoration of the original British CITY OF THE DEAD. You can hear the little snippets of dialogue that were cut so as not offend we poor Americans.

Besides the magnificent HD 1080p print (sorry ratio purists), the 2.0 audio lets you really appreciate the dialogue and the schizoid score (Douglas Gamley plus jazz by Ken Jones). The subtitles are accurate and let us know about all the chanting.


Extras on the disc are plentiful and put major studios to shame.

First up is the shorter American version, HORROR HOTEL. For those who want to compare how the film used to look, check it out. Dupey, with washed out grays and lack of detail.

Next up is the info filled feature length commentary by film historian Bruce Hallenbeck (author such great film books as “The Amicus Anthology “, Hemlock Books,2014). He keeps the info flowing throughout the course of the entire film, commenting on the people who worked both in front and behind the camera.

The rest of the extras are from V.C.I.’s previous D.V.D. release of CITY OF THE DEAD. These include

A commentary by Christopher Lee and moderator Jay Slater. Some time is spent with Lee just watching but then the star (often with some prompting) will come out with some interesting tid bits about his co-stars.
They also have an additional video interview with Lee where he discusses his career.

Next is director John Moxey with his commentary with how he got this, his first feature, as well as behind the scenes info. He too gets a separate video interview.

screw it .Im not waiting 'til the hour of 13. I'm toasting witches.

screw it .Im not waiting ’til the hour of 13. I’m toasting witches.

There is also a video interview with Venetia Stevenson, the only American in a film supposedly set the North East United States.


Finally, rounding out the release are an altered theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery, along with some digital liner notes by film reviewer Mike Kenny.

This is a must have for any lover of classic horror films. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and big kudos to V.C.I.

– Kevin G Shinnick


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