CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
I always thought it a pity that John Moxey’s “City of the Dead” was re-titled “Horror Hotel” for its U.S. release–even though The Raven’s Inn is clearly no Ritz. The Grindhouse-type title probably kept away some audiences that might have enjoyed this occult thriller.
To my mind this is a film in which almost everything works. (The flashback sequence in which Puritan churchman Jethrow Keane fervently invokes Lucifer to come to the aid of the witch Elizabeth Selwyn is a bit forced. Surely some one in the crowd would have overheard his invocations and he would have joined his lover on the woodpile. But granted it was a way of establishing the connection between Keane and the accused witch.) The idea here is that the dying witch cursed the village that condemned her–not so different from the opening of Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday”–and made about the same time too. Now the village of Whitewood exists in swirls of eternal ground-fog and seems almost entirely populated by witches and warlocks. The design of the town itself is a great example of creating mood on a budget. We almost never really see Whitewood in daylight, and never see the town in its entirety. What we see are a series of locations, principal among them, the gloomy Raven’s Inn. There is a disused church, an antique shop run by the blind (and congregation-less) minister’s pretty niece, a church-yard and gas station a few miles outside of the town. So much for Whitewood.
But only half of the action of the film takes place in Whitewood, the rest occurs in an unnamed New England college town where there is a skeptical professor of Biology, Barlow, and a professor of History, Driscoll, who seems to know so much about the New England witch-trials that it’s almost as if he was a participant in them. The historian is played by Christopher Lee at his most humorless. He doesn’t at all appreciate the skepticism of his students concerning witchcraft. You see he’s the sort of academic given to wearing ornate capes and sacrificing pigeons between classes. So he’s more than pleased when the biology prof’s pretty blonde kid sister becomes enamored of his tales of the bad old days and wants to do “original research” on the topic. Professor Driscoll knows exactly where to send her–an all-but-forgotten village named Whitewood–and when to send her–just a few days before Candlemas Eve.
Now the film has a minor place in genre studies by ever so slightly preceding “Psycho” in playing the same nasty trick on the audience. The blonde co-ed, Nan Barlow, was played by Venetia Stevenson, a hot young starlet, her character was spunky and smart, not your typical damsel-in-distress. In short she’s exactly the type of heroine you’d expect to find in this type of horror movie. But she’s offered as a Candlemas sacrifice halfway through the film. Oops. The remainder of the film becomes a search by the professor and the co-ed’s fiancé (especially hated by Driscoll for his wise-ass remarks during the great man’s lectures). The prof soon runs afoul of the formidable Mrs. Newless who runs the Raven’s Inn. Mrs. Newless was played by the British actress Patricia Jessel who exceled in roles dripping with hauteur. She and Jethrow Keane (the sepulchral-voiced Valentine Dyall) serve as masters-of-ceremonies during Whitewood’s holiday season. Now the Witches Sabbath approaches and the blind minister’s comely niece has been chosen for sacrifice.
Of course the professor will manage to save Betta St. John’s newly-anointed heroine, but only after he can wrap his head around the fact that his less-than-esteemed colleague Driscoll, Mrs. Newless, Keane and apparently most of Whitewood are witches who died centuries before but are kept alive by ancient sorceries–and drinking the blood of their sacrificial victims. The old minister, dying, gives the professor the formula for vanquishing the witches, but can a man-of-science bring himself to believe in such apparent nonsense? Well, finding Driscoll’s tombstone helps some, and the fact that the good people of Whitewood are all set to perform a human sacrifice before his eyes helps a little more. The professor is under restraint, but the muscle-bound fiancé, who the witches thought they had disposed of earlier via a grisly car crash, comes through and saves the day, exposing the witches to the shadow of the cross while the professor recites the words of the exorcism. Mrs. Newless proves to be a deft hand at throwing sacrificial knives, but even that doesn’t stop the lad. Fortunately for the witches, Driscoll carries a very un-academic switchblade in his robes so the service can continue. Unfortunately for the witches, Driscoll also turns out to be the theologian of the coven and, by insisting that they wait until, “the hour of thirteen” to dispatch the minister’s niece, they are themselves fried by the shadow of the cross falling upon them.
Yes, “City of the Dead”/”Horror Hotel” is an old-fashioned sort of affair–it’s even filmed in black-and-white–but whoever said that a good horror movie has to be fashionable?