I learned about Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead, in an article I read about folk horror. To be honest, I’d never heard of this movie and thus didn’t expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. Released in 1960 in black-and-white, Horror Hotel is one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen in the past few months.
The plot: college student Nan Barlow travels to the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts on the recommendation of her professor (Christopher Lee) to research witchcraft. She goes despite the protests of her boyfriend and her brother, who are so obnoxious I think she makes the trek to get away from them. Nan picks up a hitchhiker named Jethrow enroute to Whitewood. When Jethrow vanishes upon arrival Nan doesn’t blink an eye, which means she either doesn’t believe in the supernatural or isn’t too smart. She definitely didn’t read the script.
Whitewood is the type of place that would make most sane people turn around and drive away. It’s always foggy and dark. The blind priest warns Nan off. Ghostly singing voices drift up from the trapdoor in our heroine’s room. The woman who owns the Raven’s Inn looks just like Elizabeth Selwyn, burned for witchcraft almost three hundred years ago. Clueless Nan soldiers on, at one point reading a treatise on human sacrifice to the head witch, who does a fine job keeping a straight face.
Horror Hotel is not perfect. Neither of the movie’s titles fit. The jazzy bebop soundtrack doesn’t work. Mr. Lee is great as usual, but some of the other acting is dreadful. However, Horror Hotel is well written and atmospheric, with a few genuinely disturbing scenes and a riveting ending.