City of The Dead, 1960. 8.5/10

Christopher Lee stars in this tale of New England witchcraft. As Professor Driscoll, he encourages a student, Nan (Venetia Stevenson), to investigate the site of a 1692 witch hunt. What she finds is a modern equivalent of the original witch coven, headed by Elizabeth Sewlyn/Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel). Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotus) tries to help her out in witch country.

Other participants include Nan’s boyfriend Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), antiquarian Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), Jethro Keane (Valentine Dyall), Patricia’s grandfather, Reverend Russell (Norman MacOwan), and servant Lottie (Ann Beach).

We start in 1692. Burning Elizabeth is the order of the day; unfortunately for the do-gooders, and thanks to Jethro’s summoning of Satan’s clouds, she has time to curse them. Still, it didn’t save her. Fast forward to 1960.

And Driscoll’s classroom. He talks Nan into doing a field trip to Whitewood, the center of the historic coven. Richard comes to see Nan, while Bill and Driscoll look on. He tells Driscoll that witchcraft is “mumbo jumbo.” Apparently, though, good old Elizabeth had come calling on the families of those who condemned her. Well, at least, that’s what they say…

At the local hangout, Nan and Bill talk about her project; Bill’s definitely in Robert’s camp thinking it’s a bunch of nonsense. In a fog-enshrouded landscape, she gives a stranger a ride to Whitewood. They’re both going to the Raven’s Inn. He happens to be the reincarnation of Jethro Keane. People just sort of appear out of the fog. Like…this.

Of course the inn is next to the graveyard. Anyway, Lottie greets her at the inn, and Mrs. Lawless books her room. Jethro’s lurking about. Mrs. Newless and Jethro mumble cryptically that “he will be pleased.” I don’t think they mean God.

The Reverend looms out of the shadows of the church, warning Nan to leave “before it’s too late.” I’d drive right through myself; all the freaks standing around in the fog are ghostly nuts. Nan pops into the antique store where she meets Patricia. Nan learns that Driscoll’s ancestors are locals.

That night she hears weird chanting coming from downstairs. She goes to find the landlady, who gives her a tour, but tells her that the basement is filled in). Jeepers! There’s the dead blackbird with a stick through it–just like it said in Witchcraft 101.

There’s a sort of black mass procession outside; while inside, Nan opens up the trapdoor to the basement. She’s grabbed by the coven, who apparently want to sacrifice her. Elizabeth/Newless does the deed.

Back in civilization, Richard’s having a party; so where’s Nan? Bill convinces him to call Whitewood. But there’s “no such place” as the Raven’s Inn. Next call is to the cops. Meanwhile, Newless tells Patricia that Nan’s left. Two cops come and talk to Patricia, who of course hasn’t seen her in weeks.

Richard and Bill are really worried now. So Richard goes to Driscoll; “you think something happened to my sister!” Well, uh, no, but. Now it’s Patricia calling on Driscoll–same inquiry. Anyway, Nan’s friend takes the spooky trip to Whitewood, giving the ghostly Jethro the ride into town. Both Bill and Robert converge on the place.

Bills hallucinates Elizabeth’s 1692 burning and crashes (with the automotive witchcraft of a ’49 Ford reborn as a burning truck). Now Robert’s wandering about in the foggy walking graveyard …Then, more wisely, he looks up Patricia and the Reverend. Back at the old Inn, Lottie is strangled for being too snoopy.

Does Pat think that Nan’s disapperance has something to do with this witch thing? Duh! A spring of woodbine on Pat’s door–that’s a bad sign. They can’t escape, as their car’s been sabotaged. Bill emerges, bloodied, but basically ok; the Reverend however, is not so lucky. Both guys find the cave entrance to the coven’s lair. Uh, oh, “we’ve been waiting for you” is Elizabeth’s welcome down in the basement; where a load of witches clusters around the old slab-o’–sacrifice.

They shoot their way out, but there’s enough witches to jumpstart a new sacrifice. Even though Bill’s been stabbed, he manages to leverage a heavy cross from the handy graveyard. That torches any witch that gets too close. They all get toasted before Bill collapses.

This movie is so atmospheric that the fog is pretty much a character. The Salem-esque setting is as close as we get in America to European dark-age superstition. The premise is more or less off the shelf, then; but it’s how well witchcraft theme is used that makes this film spook us so thoroughly.

It’s interesting how witchcraft is the dark side of religion’s spiritual coin. The good v. evil aspect makes it such a powerful, dangerous rivalry. Religious schisms in the 17th century created hostilities established churches and new sects. The losers could be marginalized as selling out to Satan. The Puritans, so adept at finding witches in New England, were themselves outcasts from England.

The psychological aspect of witchcraft is related to the spiritual dichotomy in that man’s ‘evil’ or repressed nature is in conflict with his civilized ‘good’ persona. This plays out in City of the Dead as some characters have dual roles; the other oppositional groups are the Whitewood natives and the outsiders. Driscoll straddles both worlds.

In fact, Christopher Lee is underutilized in that he never really assumes his dark side as a Whitewood bad guy. It should be Driscoll who’s the main witch; I don’t get why he’s on the sidelines for most of the movie.

With that caveat, this is quite a nice slice of horror. The pacing is just right, the performances are consistent and fit the tone, and, as mentioned, the creep factor could wake the dead. 8.5/10.

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