2 out of 5
Directed by: John Moxey
A very fun buildup hits a huge, momentum-killing snag in its midsection, leaving the back half of the film to be a rather tedious plod towards a silly conclusion. That the final showdown is reliant on the bad guys just standing there and watching while their defeat ambles toward them – plenty of time to escape, not to mention outnumbering that source of defeat ten to one – seems pretty telling.
To start, we get some history on the Massachusetts witch trials of the late 1600s, leading to purported witch Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stake. This turns out to be a review told to students by history professor Alan Driscoll, played with some restrained debonair by a fantastic Christopher Lee. Bored student Bill (Tom Naylor) cracks wise; his girlfriend, Nan (Venetia Stevenson) poo-poos this and approaches Driscoll for guidance on doing more research – including going to the town of Whitewood, site of Selwyn’s fate, to learn more. Driscoll encourages this, and what’s more, he grew up there, so he can recommend a place to stay…
Nan heads to Whitewood, and is beset upon by creepiness: tons of fog; disappearing travelers; haunting music; villagers who stand and stare. While I wish the production design and direction had pushed a little further with defining the town – it’s very small, and yet never really gets a sense of geography – this sequence and build-up, as Nan discovers odd events / connections concerning the history of the town’s witches, is really fantastic, and Stevenson carries the bit very well, supplanting the flatness of Naylor, and Dennis Lotis, playing her brother. That this section of the flick focuses on her and Whitewood is very smart, and makes things appropriately tense.
Now, of course the witches turn out to be real, and Nan is in danger…
And we cut to the film’s second half, with boyfriend Bill and Nan’s brother trying to ignore that they haven’t heard from her in two weeks, and eventually pledging to head to Whitewood – against Driscoll’s “eh, why worry” advice; Lee still an absolute highlight as he begins to allow in arched eyebrows to his cool and calm professor act – to see what’s happening, spurred on by the appearance of Patricia (Betta St. John), a town local who’d briefly befriended Nan and worries for her as well.
That we’re taken away from Nan at this point is okay; while her fate seems certain, the slight element of unknowing is good. Unfortunately, handing over the lead to the two male actors is a mistake, as they’re not compelling in the slightest, and we essentially just repeat some moves of when Nan traveled to Whitewood. It’s also clear that Patricia is meant to take over the damsel role, and this feels firstly slightly illogical, as she really steps right in to Nan’s role, despite being a townie, and also cheap, as she’s automatically cast as in-distress, and a romantic interest for Lotis; snooze.
The movie hardly has a plot after this point, drawing out a showdown between the boys and the witches, for a conceptually interesting but stupid final sequence involving the aforementioned ambling and standing around. The final “twist” is also used to cover up the complete lack of an actual conclusion.
Generally, half a good movie would probably be good enough, but it becomes so disinteresting with its casting and plotting in the second half that it undoes a lot of that good enoughness. Director Moxey is very practical for the most part, so there’s not much interest in the visuals, though some occasional setups use great foreground / background or some more dynamic angles, adding spots of spice. More impressive – very impressive, actually – is the lighting, which brilliantly separates that foreground and background throughout, and beautifully casts focus around the screen.
Initially rather gripping, The City of the Dead descends into doldrums as it swaps out some of its originality for stereotypical save-the-dame business, and illogical showdowns.