Candlemas Eve means just one thing to me…”Horror Hotel”!
Time for a new review…or a refreshed review for my “Birthday B-movie”, Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead. What does this movie have to do with my birthday, February 2nd, you may ask? Well, the first portion of the film is centred around Candlemas Eve, which is February 1st (Candlemas is February 2nd). So, I have made it a personal tradition to watch Horror Hotel every February 1st, or on the 2nd if I can’t watch it the night before.
“Horror Hotel” B&W, 1960
I came to know it first as “Horror Hotel”. Now I hear it referred to mostly as “The City of the Dead”. I can’t quite remember where I first saw it…was it on specialty channel Scream, or perhaps Drive-In Classics sometime in the early 2000s? Or did I discover it on DVD in an indie videostore, or even HMV’s more obscure film section?
It doesn’t really matter, it fascinated me and inspired my own horror-comedy musical play, which I also adapted into a novella, “Horror at Terror Creek” (along with films from the Corman-Poe cycle, and also “The Brotherhood of Satan”).
Now I watch “Horror Hotel” either on my birthday, or preferably the eve of my birthday–February 1st, Candlemas Eve, which is one of the two most important dates in the film. Candlemas Eve, and the Witches Sabbath (March 3rd–honestly, though, if I were a Satanist-type witch, I would want to spread these sacrifices out by more than slightly over a month).
A stranger named Nan Barlow has come to Whitewood to do research on witchcraft. Her university professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee!) has advised her to visit his hometown to study it’s history, and tells her to drop his name at the Raven’s Inn and she’ll have no trouble getting a room. And she doesn’t–she also has no trouble becoming one of two yearly virgin human sacrifices during the Hour of Thirteen on Candlemas Eve.
She is murdered part way through the film in a twist similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which also came out in 1960–by Mrs. Newless, who is actually Elizabeth Selwyn, and the rest of the coven, who were burned as witches 200 years ago. These two yearly sacrifices on February 1st and March 3rd are what keep them immortal–the living dead.
Two weeks later, Nan’s concerned fiancé, Bill, and her brother, Richard, are visited by Patricia (who met Nan and lent her a book on witchcraft while she was in Whitewood), who is also concerned about Nan’s disappearance. They all return separately to Whitewood. Bill barely survives a car crash on his way, caused by an apparition of Selwyn. It’s not long before all three learn what happened to Nan, and fall victim to the coven themselves…they arrive March 3rd, after all.
I’ll leave it to you to discover the ending for yourself.
“City of the Dead” was the directorial debut for John Llewellyn Moxey, and starred Christopher Lee, Denis Lotis, Betta St. John, Patricia Jessel, Valentine Dyall, and “introduced” Venetia Stevenson as Nan, even though she had already been in 7 features.
According to Wikipedia, the script was originally written by George Baxt as a pilot for a television series starring Boris Karloff! Honestly, now that I know this, it feels a bit like an episode from a horror television series. Producer Milton Subotsky rewrote it to be feature length. Television producer Hannah Weinstein came up with some of the financing, along with money from the Nottingham Forest Football Club. Production began on October 12th, 1959 at Shepperton Studios with a budget of £45,000. The film was produced by Vulcan Productions, although it has also been considered the first Amicus Productions films (one of Hammer Films’ most successful competitors) because it was made by Subotsky and producing partner Max Rosenberg.
“The City of the Dead” made a small profit after it was released in September 1960 in the UK. It was released in the US under the name “Horror Hotel” in 1962.
Some of the music is comically jarring, particularly the upbeat tunes playing on the car radio, presumably, while Nan drives to Whitewood. Shortly after this, we come upon one of the most famous horror tropes (though you usually don’t see this until the movies of the 70s and 80s), the Creepy Gas Station Attendant, dispensing directions and advice. Though this particular gentleman is not so creepy, he is in fact male and a salt of the earth type, and the station is dilapidated and off the beaten path. How do these guys manage to stay in business?
Another moment I love is a bit of a spoiler, but what the hell–the effect of the shadow of the cross on the witches. It burns them to a crisp, but they don’t really try to avoid it. Oh yes, they need to make their sacrifice in order to continue their mortality, and they must do this on the 13th stroke (the hour of 13), so they are somewhat trapped in place, but I would think running away from the cross, rather than towards it would be more helpful in avoiding being charred. But what do I know.
And now, a bit of random trivia from “The City of The Dead”:
A recent limited edition Blu-ray includes an interview with Christopher Lee which is really fun to watch–he sums up his own career so well, and muses about the issues he has seen as problematic for the British film industry. There is also a commentary track by Christopher Lee.
A part of Christopher Lee’s line: “fear superstition and jealousy”, is used in the beginning of Rob Zombie’s song “Dragula”.
It was Betta St. John’s last film.
Candlemas (Imbolic) is not generally considered one of the Sabbats when spirits roam the earth. Those are Walpurgisnacht (the night before Beltane Sabbat, or May Day) and Halloween or Samhain (All Hallows Eve). Candlemas is the Sabbat associated with the first stirrings of spring, dairy products, and the lengthening of the days as summer approaches.
Dennis Lotis was a major recording star in the UK during the 1950s and early 1960s. He does not sing in this film.
I love that this film has become one of my annual traditions. Maybe you’ll consider giving it a watch on your next Candlemas Eve?