REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HORROR HOTEL. Trans-Lux, US, 1962. First released by Vulcan Films, UK, 1960, as The City of the Dead. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey.

   You really need to see this.

   Expertly done on a small budget, Horror Hotel opens in the 1600s colonial village of Whitewood, Massachusetts, with a witch (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stake, calling down a curse on the place as her lover (Valentine Dyall) looks on. Jump cut about 300 years and we’re in a college classroom where Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) passionately relates the episode to a room of rather superannuated students. Some scoff, but pretty coed Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) asks to do further research, and the eager-to-help pedagogue suggests with a sly look in his eye that she try poking around in an out-of-the way village… called Whitewood.

   Nan’s boyfriend (Tom Naylor) and brother (Dennis Lotis) pooh-pooh the idea, but in no time she’s driving through dense, forbidding fog to the remote hamlet, pausing only to pick up a mysterious hitchhiker (Valentine Dyall again) before she arrives at the blighted hamlet, finds a rather dank and forbidding Inn, meets the landlady (Patricia Jessel again!) and sinister things start happening, slowly at first, but quickly building up to a grand and nasty finale.

   Cinematographer Desmond Dickenson, whose credits include Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Michael Gough’s Konga, fills the screen with memorable creepiness; low-lying mist covers the ground and obscures the buildings, hiding the cheap sets wonderfully, and the camera shifts to odd angles at times, never arty but constantly surprising.

   The players put earnest effort into their parts, even the stock types. Ms. Jessel evokes the spirit of Judith Anderson effectively, with maybe a touch of Barbara Stanwyck. Christopher Lee is a shade too patently fanatic as the sinister professor, but I saw a lot worse back in my college days. And Betta St. John does a wonderful horror-movie heroine, perky and terrified in equal measure.

   The plot unspools quickly, with a few clever twists, and if Horror Hotel never hits the Classic mark, it doesn’t miss it by much. In all, a pleasantly terrifying way to spend an October evening.