Thursday, December 30, 2004

Horror Hotel (1960)

This film, also billed as The City of the Dead, has a finer pedigree than most of my selections, co-starring as it does horror legend Christopher Lee, known best to today's moviegoing kids as Count Dooku from Attack of the Clones and Saruman from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even his presence, however, can't change this cliched, predictable re-hash of the Salem witchcraft legend into anything special.

Let's rush through the plot, just as the writers must have. Earnest college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is fascinated by the pet topic of her favorite professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee): witchcraft in early New England. Much to the derision of her boyfriend and classmate Bill (Tom Naylor), Prof. Driscoll seems to believe that the tales of witches and their craft were more than just hysteria and superstition - that pacts with Satan really were entered into, and that witches actually made blood sacrifices to the Dard Lord.

Nan decides to research her term paper on witchcraft over the winter school holiday at a real, honest-to-goodness creepy old New England village. Driscoll steers her toward the hamlet of Whitewood, Massachusetts, which we later discover is his home town. Nan promises skeptical boyfriend Bill and protective college professor brother Richard to return in two weeks to attend the birthday party of a mutual friend.

Upon arriving in Whitewood, she encounters weirdness at every turn, including the inexplicable unfriendliness of innkeeper Mrs. Newliss (Patricia Jessel). It seems Nan has arrived at the "Raven's Inn" on one of the two most important dates on the witches' calendar, one of the two festivals upon which they need to sacrifice the blood of a young maiden to appease the Devil and prolong their unholy lives. Wait a minute; Nan is a young maiden. And her witch-obsessed professor directed her to this town on exactly this night. Hmmmm.

After hearing droning chants coming from the basement and discovering a dead bird in her hotel room bureau, Nan decides to investigate the clumsily-hidden trap door in the floor of her room. After a fretful trip down a cobwebbed stone stairway, she encounters the big surprise: a room full of the town's inhabitants dressed in robes, celebrating a Black Mass. Nan is grabbed, thrown on a stone slab, and a knife brought down to her neck. After all, that's what happens to snoopy young coeds in weird small towns.

Cut immediately to a shot of party guests slicing a birthday cake and celebrating with noisemakers. Nan's boyfriend and brother are alarmed at her no-show status at the party and inform the police. As always, the police are worthless, which requires Richard and Bill to mount their own amatuer investigations. Will they discover the town's dark secret before the next young woman is lured to her doom and sacrificed to the King of Hell? As it turns out, yes. When confronted by the shadow of a cross in the cemetary the coven members burst into flame and are destroyed. New girl in town Patricia (Betta St. John) is saved at the last second and all is wrapped up neatly.

Now for the atmospherics. Whitewood is by far the mistiest town on earth. The boggy heaths of Scotland look like the Atacama desert compared to this place. The mist/fog starts about a mile out of town and continues throughout every outdoor space, frequently over waist height. Why no one seems to think this is the least bit odd, even people who have never been to the town and freely remark on other odd things, still puzzles me. The presence of unexplained mist has been a horror movie cliche for a long time (see the Treehouse of Horror VIII segment "Fly vs. Fly"), but this is just ridiculous.

The film also lost a little on the suspense factor once it became blindingly obvious that Nan was, in fact, to be the town's sacrifical victim. She picks up an elderly hitchhiking gentleman with a disquieting manner up the road, only to have him vanish from the car as soon as they make it into town. Could that old man have been - gasp - the Devil himself checking out the goods? Only someone with a double-digit IQ could tell for sure. Worse yet is a scene where Nan wanders into an antique store operated by recent transplant Patricia Russell who has moved to town to care for her aging, blind grandfather. Nan announces the object of her research trip, upon which Patricia produces a valuable volume of lost and forgotten witchlore. Reading through a random passage, they learn that in order to conduct an effective sacrifice, witches must acquire some special, very personal possession of the intended victim. In the very next sentence, Patricia admires Nan's locket bracelet and Nan acknowledges that yes, it is a very special personal possession of hers. If plot developments were telegraphed any faster they'd violate the Theory of Relativity.

Recommended to warlocks, H.P. Lovecraft fanatics, and fog fetishists.


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