Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr. Christopher Lee! Oh wait, he was knighted a few years ago. That makes him Sir Christopher Lee! Sir indeed! He is the man who carried the mantle of the great horror stars of the 30’s. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr…Lee was the man who took over for these greats as we moved into the 60’s and 70’s. At 90 years old, the man is still an iconic screen presence. So how could we do a Halloween series and not have an appearance from this great performer? Today we look at 1960’s “Horror Hotel,” known in the UK as “The City of the Dead,” a film with more than a resemblance to a film released just 3 months earlier. You may have heard of it…”Psycho.”
The film begins with a lecture by Professor Alan Driscoll (Lee), who teaches a college course on witchcraft. Not a subject they offered at my alma mater, I assure you. Professor Driscoll is particularly impressed with the dedication of one of his students, lovely Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). He encourages Nan to visit a small Massachusetts village called Whitewood to do some research for her paper. Whitewood was the site of some famous witch burnings, which we are shown in the prologue of the film.
Nan goes on the trip, despite the objections of her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor). Just outside of Whitewood, Nan picks up a stranger named Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall), who is also on his way into the village. When they arrive at the town’s only inn, Jethro mysterious disappears from Nan’s car. Unfazed, she convinces the owner of the hotel, Mrs Newless (Patricia Jessel) to give her a room. Mrs. Newless looks an awful lot like the witch we saw barbecued in the opening sequence.
In Whitewood, the residents love to creepily walk the pea-soup fog covered streets in the middle of the night. Unwilling to wait for daylight, Nan sets out to start investigating that night and first encounters the blind Reverend Russell (Norman Macowan) at his congregationless church. He tells her she is in great danger and should leave town. Convinced he’s just an old cook, Nan ducks into a local shop run by the reverend’s granddaughter Patricia (Betta St. John). She and Nan strike up a quick friendship and she allows the young student to borrow an old book on witchcraft in the region.
That night, Nan discovers a hidden door in the floor of her room at the inn. In true horror movie tradition, she opens the door and wanders down the cobweb infested stairway. Soon, she is grabbed by a couple of hooded goons, sprawled out on a table, and executed by the knife-wielding Mrs. Newless….with (du du duuuuuhhh) Professor Driscoll looking over her shoulder.
When Nan doesn’t turn up for a party, Richard and Bill begin try to track her down. This leads them to head to Whitewood themselves. Richard meets up with Patricia and the Reverend and begins to learn of the strange history of the village. It turns out that the local Satanists have been around for hundreds of years, granted eternal life in return for their sacrifices of a young woman on two sacred days each year. One of which is tonight, and they have their eyes now set on Patricia.
As I said, “Horror Hotel” does have some definite similarities to “Psycho,” but as the two were in production at the same time, it’s hard to say that one copied from the other. Both films focus on a young woman who heads to a hotel in a remote location during their first halves. Then that character is killed off, and the story continues with other characters investigating what happened. Htichcock’s film is one of the all time greats, and so “Horror Hotel” is doomed to always sit in its shadow. However, this is a fine film which has more than enough ability to stand on its own.
Christopher Lee is…well, he’s Christopher Lee! He’s great! Scary doesn’t even begin to describe his presence in this film. As the film got going, I was afraid he was going to be just putting in a brief appearance at the beginning. I was so thrilled to see his piercing eyes peering out of a dark cloak in the scene where Nan meets her end. And by the way, that scene is handled in wonderfully shocking way as the filmmakers cut from Mrs. Newless with knife raised to a shot of birthday cake being sliced into.
Even though the film has similarities to “Psycho,” this film does have its share of surprises. The ending is the most notable example. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s creepy, tense, and certainly keeps the audience on the edges of their seats. “Horror Hotel” is a real gem…beautifully filmed in black and white and a fantastic example of the greatness of Christopher Lee. Sorry…SIR Christopher Lee.