I’ve written about John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead before elsewhere. However, I had focused mostly on its surprising legacy in metal and even punk music. This time I want to focus a little more on the movie itself. On the surface, The City of the Dead seems like a straightforward horror tale about witch burnings in Massachusetts. However, while the town of Whitewood and the character of Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) are both fictional, some witch burnings were very real. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when it’s depicted on a screen, complete with staged fog and characters who are almost cartoonishly evil. Still, that historical reality should lend weight to the scenes in this movie, and to any other movie about witch burnings.
The Point of the Movie?
So, what is the ultimate story we’re presented with here? What exactly is the point of The City of the Dead? We are asked to imagine that Satanic witches are real, or can be. In other words, it’s ultimately a horror movie playing with old superstitions, which is actually pretty standard for horror films. About 7 years later, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby would deal with similar themes, though with a far more psychological approach to it all. Here it’s more about the harrowing fun of witchcraft and Satanic magic.
Sure, the initial main character, Nan (Venetia Stevenson), is obviously a potential horror victim. You know that right from the start! However, she never seems quite as deeply tormented as poor Rosemary. As Nan gets closer and closer to unveiling a historical coven, it’s less psychosexual and more about classic horror scares and spooky moods. One half-expects to see black cats and flying bats, among other conventional, “spooky” horror fare.
How Well Does ‘The City of the Dead’ Hold Up Today?
I’ll be honest here: I don’t find this movie particularly exciting, yet I still like it. It has become a bit of a minor cinematic comfort blanket. It’s a bit like something I can put on every once in a while, just because. I guarantee you I’m not alone in that. Christopher Lee gives a pretty good job as the devout Professor Alan Driscoll. However, few people would mark this as his finest performance. In fact, actress Patricia Jessel does far more to command attention, as her character seems to love Satan more than life itself! Obviously, that’s exactly what you’d want in a performance of a Satanic witch. If I’m being honest, I wish The City of the Dead gave this character more screen time.
Again, the depth from this movie mostly comes from its links to historical truth. That being said, if you really want to immerse yourself in witchcraft, you can always take a guided tour of the actual Salem, Massachusetts. Or, of course, you could apply for a license to become a Satanic witch in a cursed town (do they have a 401K?). I also think the movie’s perfect for a certain holiday. Nowadays, people want more than ever to create an atmosphere such as Whitewood’s during Halloween. You can watch this movie to get a few pointers on that.
What do you think of The City of the Dead? Let us know in the comments!