The City of the Dead 1960 ***

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Also known as Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a rather staid but also rather unnerving black and white horror that makes up for in atmosphere what it lacks in pizazz. Christopher Lee is top billed in John Moxey’s chiller, but he’s a minor player here. He plays university professor Alan Driscol, who directs a young witchcraft student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where she stays in an inn recommended by Driscol, The Raven’s Inn. Whitewood offers more fog that a Carl Dreyer smoke machine testing, and the local minister has long gone without a congregation. The reason is witchcraft; a prologue establishes that the town is cursed, and a witch is amongst the residents who wish Nan ill-fortune…The City of the Dead is often mentioned alongside Carnival of Souls or Night of the Eagle; it’s got a similar low-fi evocation of witchcraft, and a strange mood; the sombre nightly dances at The Raven’s Inn seem beyond improbable. There’s also a plot-twist that predates Psycho and some very crisp photography; Desmond Dickinson’s lensing comes up sharply in a new print which does the film justice. If there’s a lack of surprises here, there’s also a British restraint that, despite the rather fancifully realised US setting, creates a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few genre films can match.

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Murrain 1976

The title means a plague, and the writer is Nigel Kneale; diseases, particularly amongst farm-animals are a recurring theme in his work, and this one-off entry in a compendium of plays by British dramatists is an ideal introduction to Kneale’s work. It’s a story about witchcraft that adheres to no genre conventions; the exploration is deliberately un-sensational, thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. David Simeon plays Alan Crich, a vet called on by a farmer (Bernard Lee) to investigate a blight on his animals. Crich discovers that the locals in a nearby village also suffer from an ailment, and that the superstitious villagers blame an old woman who lives alone. Scoffing at their ideas of witchcraft, Crich investigates, but what he finds challenges his own world-view.  Kneale’s work here is considerably better than his script for Hammer’s 1966 film The Witches, and John Cooper’s direction makes good use of atmospheric outdoor sets. Murrain sees Kneale releasing himself from the science-fiction angle and focusing on an examination of fear and tradition in a primitive English village. It’s well acted, deadly serious and a minor gem of bleak 1970’s horror.

Beasts: Baby 1976

Also from the pen of Quatermass scribe Nigel Kneale, the Beasts series on ITV horror drama from the mid 1970’s is rarely seen; not all the episodes have dated well, and the single location, acres of dialogue formula that was due to budget restrictions works against episodes like After Barty’s Party. Baby is probably the best of the bunch, and has a haunting charm that’s well worth seeking out. Jo (Jane Wymark) and her vet husband Peter (Simon MacCorkindale) move into a country house, but during renovations, find an urn buried in the wall, with a mummified creature inside. Neither Peter not his colleague Dick (T.P.Mckenna) can work out what the creature is, but Jo, who is pregnant, doesn’t want it in the house. He wishes are not carried out, and the signs point to witchcraft. Baby goes the extra mile in terms of disturbing details (professional discussions of abortions in cows are juxtaposed with Jo’s body dysmorphia) and the pre-credits sequence sets up the idea of some kind of natural sickness. Baby is something of a legendary status amongst young people who saw it back in 1976, but it still has a lasting impact seen today. Like most of Kneale’s work, it’s due a proper dust-off for streaming.

The Witch 2016 ***

the-witchIn retrospect, making a horror film set in 1630’s New England is an obvious idea; modern horror is so starved of new ideas that going back to source materials promises that at least the usual clichés can be body-swerved. Robert Eggers writes and directs this intense story of possession and witchcraft as Katherine and William (Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson) attempt to transplant their family to a new home, only to find that their daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) is acting strangely. The family’s goat, Black Phillip, steals the show, and The Witch finishes on a few memorable flourishes, even if it ends where one might have hoped that it would start. Nevertheless, the slow burn is effective, and Eggers deserves credit for ploughing a fresh furrow in the annals of witchcraft film-making.