Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween at "Horror Hotel"

Although set in February, the month of Candlemas Eve, Horror Hotel is a perfect movie for Halloween. From 2006, here are my thoughts on one of my favorite chillers.

The poster for the 1963 U.S. release of Horror Hotel, a tiny reproduction of which appears on the cover of Navarra’s Triple Feature Horror Classics, Volume 5, was one of the most misleading pieces of advertising ever devised for a film’s marketing campaign.

“Just ring for doom service!” the tag line reads. A key on which the film’s title is imprinted dangles from a skeleton’s hand surrounded by a grotesque face with fangs, saliva visible in its open mouth.

The poster gives no clue to the atmosphere that director John Moxey and cinematographer Douglas Dickinson bring to this tale of modern day witchcraft in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts. A movie that basks in morbidity and sends chills down the spine is depicted as a grade B scream fest on the order of a William Castle production, something like The Tingler that inspires more giggles than groans. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which gives its seal of approval to films and their advertising, may have rejected an ad campaign that hinted at the movie’s portrayal of human sacrifice. When released in the U.K. as City of the Dead in 1960, this chiller may have benefitted from a more honest and effective promotional campaign, but I’m sure children were forbidden from attending even with parents.

By the early ‘60s, horror films were generally regarded as kid stuff in the U.S., fodder for Saturday matinees and drive-in triple features. The U.K. had a ratings system long before Hollywood introduced their self-policing system in 1969, and the colorfully gory titles produced by Hammer were frequently slapped with an “adults only” label in their native country of Great Britain. Once they traveled overseas to the States, they were open to all audiences, perhaps due to simple economics. The early Universal horror films, Dracula and Frankenstein, which established the horror genre, appealed to adults, as well as younger audiences. As the genre deteriorated into less sophisticated territory (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), the fan base narrowed to teens and kids.

By the late ‘50s, when Universal released its backlog of pre-1949 titles to television, Hammer was reviving the moribund genre with full color remakes. At the same time, Forrest J. Ackerman began publishing Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine devoted to horror and science-fiction films, soon to be followed by the competing Castle of Frankenstein whose approach was more sophisticated, geared more to film buffs who admired horror and science-fiction, and less to kids who simply liked monsters.

But the kids who liked monsters, and preferred building Aurora model sets of Dracula and Frankenstein to slapping the glue on plastic airplanes, won out, so Horror Hotel’s advertising campaign was directed at them, as were the ads for The Head, the German film that comprised the second half of the double bill when Horror Hotel opened stateside in June 1963, just in time for summer vacation and the start of the drive-in season.
I saw it at the Pearl Road Drive-In in Cleveland, Ohio with my family, and it made a strong impression on me that was only strengthened when I saw it again a few years later on the Friday night late movie hosted by Houlihan and Big Chuck on WJW-TV8. It was a mainstay on local television throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, then disappeared in the ‘80s, its owners having failed to renew the copyright. But it continued to haunt the imagination of those who saw it on television, usually in the wee hours, the perfect time for a film that casts such a macabre, creepy spell.

Horror Hotel was finally released on home video in the ‘90s, and I checked in again in 2004 to find it every bit as effective as I remembered.

Horror Hotel is a triumph. Filmed entirely on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios by Vulcan Productions, which would change its name to Amicus for such future shockers as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The House That Dripped Blood, it is unmatched for its atmosphere. The fog machine never worked harder than it did when used to create the crypt-like ambience of Whitewood. The Raven’s Inn, the private hotel built on the exact spot where Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake on March 3, 1692 (a dramatic sequence that opens the film), is dark and deathly quiet except for the ticking of the clock in the lobby and the solemn chanting that visiting college student Nan Barlow tells the proprietor, Mrs. Newliss, she hears coming from beneath the trap door in her room.

“There’s nothing under there but earth,” Mrs. Newliss says, and points to the trap door’s lack of a ring as evidence. The ring later appears dangling in the window shortly before the film’s most frightening moment: Nan Barlow’s descent via the cobwebbed stairs beneath the Raven’s Inn where she meets her terrifying fate.

Horror Hotel
has a few hokey moments. When Professor Barlow (Dennis Lotis) invades the witches coven below the Raven’s Inn, he empties his handgun into his foreboding colleague, the undead witch, Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee). The bullets have no effect, so what does Barlow do? The same thing the gangsters did on TV’s The Adventures of Superman when realizing the Man of Steel could not be deterred with mere bullets: Barlow throws his gun at Driscoll! Even more laughable is Driscoll’s reaction: he ducks!

Then there’s that bookstore operated by the granddaughter of the reverend who warns visitors to Whitewood that the devil lives and is worshiped there. Considering that the aligning church has no congregation, and all of the townsfolk appear to be witches, who is the clientele? Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) stops in seeking books for her college thesis on the history of witchcraft in Whitewood, but she only borrows a dusty antique volume (A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England) that she can’t afford to buy. Ken Jones’ jazz that is heard as Barlow drives to Whitewood has been criticized, but since it seems to be emanating from the car radio, it’s not inappropriate. Still, it contributes nothing to the film, quite unlike Douglas Gamely’s eerie choral music that opens the film and is heard during the witches rituals. It has the effect of a cold, dead hand on your shoulder.

The acting is excellent, much better than required for a low-budget horror show, an indication that the producers envisioned a quality project and sought only the best talent.

Venetia Stevenson, the perky blonde whose disappearance while researching witchcraft for a college assignment paves the way for the fiery climax, has an innocent charm that contrasts well with the saturnine Patricia Jessel, whose strong features attract and repel at the same time. Despite her fourth billing, Jessel is the true star of Horror Hotel, and her performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newliss would have been a mere caricature of a witch in lesser hands. But Jessel was a Tony Award winner as best supporting actress in the 1956 Broadway production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, and her performance suggests she did not regard her role in a “horror movie” as a lark.

When Nan Barlow asks Mrs. Newliss if Elizabeth Selwyn was really burned as a witch on the site where the Raven’s Inn now stands, Jessel doesn’t merely say “She was,” but answers with a mix of pride and pain with a facial expression to match. She conveys both the haughty delight she takes in having been condemned for her beliefs, as well as the sorrow she feels about her persecution.

Christopher Lee as her accomplice is no mere boogeyman, but a weary sort, impatient with those, like Professor Barlow, who mock and condescendingly dismiss his teachings as nonsense. Dennis Lotis, previously known as a pop singer, is also impressive, never more so than when he follows his sister’s trail and, in the cavern below the Raven’s Inn, discovers the corpse of Lotti, the mute servant sympathetically played by Ann Beach, whose attempts to warn the guests of their host’s true nature leads to her doom.

Tom Naylor as Nan’s boyfriend, Betta St. John as the heroine of the second half of the film, and Norman Macowan as Reverend Russell are also excellent.

Then there’s Valentine Dyall as Jethro Keane, who hitches a ride with Nan Barlow on her way to Whitewood, only to disappear into mist when they reach the cemetery. Dyall, a character actor with a distinctive baritone, later played the caretaker in 1963's The Haunting, a more prestigious horror film that would make for a perfect double feature with Horror Hotel.

Horror Hotel is a superbly crafted thriller that received scant attention from critics (The New York Times panned it, along with The Head, in a review so brief that I suspect the critic didn’t bother to see the movie), but it has inspired devotion among those who discovered it, quite unexpectedly, through its television airings, and now regard it as the scariest movie they’ve ever seen.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks

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