In The Mike's Lair, it's just not October without a little Christopher Lee. I have plenty of heroes in horror - in fact, I detailed my 10 favorites last October in some of my favorite posts I've ever written - but Lee just seems to be my go-to horror star as I age. There's something about his presence that can be truly chilling in almost any setting, And when the mood is right (and I don't mean that in a Barry White kind of way) he can help make a horror film truly memorable. And that brings us to Horror Hotel, aka The City of the Dead in its native England, a film that brings in Lee as just one small part of its creepy goodness.
A black-and-white chiller from 1960, Horror Hotel might be the most atmospheric horror film to be released between the works of Val Lewton and John Carpenter's The Fog. Half the film seems to take place in parts of a small New England town where patches of dense fog just seem to happen, and there's a terrific unease to the setting of a small town with a history of witchcraft that dates back to 1692.
Enter Nan Barlow (you don't hear the name "Nan" any more...but it's kind of awesome, I say), a blonde college student who takes up the challenge of her professor (Lee) and heads off - alone, naturally - to investigate the historic (and fictional) New England village of Whitewood, where a young woman was burned as a witch more than 250 years earlier. She goes through the investigation-of-an-odd-small-town procedures that have become commonplace in horror cinema, with the most interesting person she meets happening to be an innkeeper (Patricia Jessel, who gives a juicy performance) who looks a lot like the which we all saw burned in the opening scene. Gee....you gotta wonder if that's gonna come in to play later on.
Venetia Stevenson stars as Nan, and her perky performance draws some incredibly eerie (but likely coincidental) parallels to the one given by Janet Leigh in another horror film released in 1960. The film is most interesting when she moves around this ghastly town and interacts with Jessel and the other inhabitants, most of whom seem to be keeping a dark secret and few of whom - basically just one incredibly helpful young woman in a book store - seem to be living in the current century. The culture shock of this young college girl entering a town from the past is a big part of the film's early tension, but it's not the meat and potatoes of the film.
No, the film hits it's stride near the middle when that dark secret catches up to poor Nan. There's a sequence that also parallels that other 1960 horror film where everything seems kind of normal and a whole lot more than was the norm is revealed to the audience - and then things take off in a surprising manner. The shock might not have been as groundbreaking this time around - there's no chocolate swirling around a drain ala Psycho - but the sequence that reveals what's going on in this hotel seems to move incredibly quickly and has a haunting quality to it, thanks in large part to Miss Stevenson's screams.
The second half of the film isn't as interesting as the first, but Horror Hotel still works as a moody tale of witchcraft and the occult that features excellent performances, spooky settings, and a crap-ton of fog machines. Fans of Lee and old-fashioned horror should have fun with this 75 minute chiller, which can be found on plenty of public domain DVDs/websites. It's worth seeking out, and not just because of its similarities to Psycho. During the Halloween season, a chiller like Horror Hotel is just what the doctor ordered.