In seventeeth century New England, the denizens of a small village are about to riot if one Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) is not dragged from her house. The reason is that they believe her to be a witch - and they're right - but when the head preacher asks her companion Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) if he knows of her, he denies it, despite also being involved with her Satanic activities. And so it is that Elizabeth is tied to a stake and a fire is lit under her but with her dying breaths she laughs, knowing that she has made a pact with the Devil that will see her outlast her tormentors. Almost three hundred years later, a college professor, Driscoll (Christopher Lee) relates this tale and one student, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) takes it very seriously...
This stage bound but heavily atmospheric chiller was scripted by George Baxt from producer Milton Subotsky's story, and was an early example of horror from a team which would soon become the celebrated Amicus, a company better known for its creepy anthologies. As has been pointed out, the main plot twist is surprisingly similar to the one in Psycho - well, the first one in Psycho, at any rate - and also The Wicker Man owes something to its narrative. However, the twist is so thoroughly telegraphed here that only genre conventions of the time prevent it being incredibly obvious from the beginning.
Nan's brother Dick (Dennis Lotis, a singer in his day job) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) are deeply sceptical about the whole witchcraft course peddled by Professor Driscoll, but nothing will dampen her enthusiasm. She announces that she is to travel to New England and do her own extensive research into the subject, interviewing the descendants and uncovering new information, and Driscoll suggests that she head for a small hamlet called Whitewood. It should be pointed out that the American title for this film is the far more appropriate Horror Hotel, because Whitewood is not anyone's idea of a city.
So begins the real meat of the story, with a marvellous ambience of dread and doom, in fact so imbued is the film with this that you'd think that Nan might have noticed Whitewood isn't perhaps the best place for a woman on her own to be, but she remains pretty obtuse throughout, focused only on her work. The landlady of the hotel is one Mrs Newless, who is also played by Jessel and if you don't realise that you might see that her name said backwards sounds strangely familiar. Newless is a sinister figure, as is a certain hitchhiker that Nan picked up on the way there (Dyall again) who serves as a nod to the traditional vanishing hitchhiker story, and turns out to be a conspirator.
In the village, there is but one character anywhere near normal, and she's Patricia (Betta St John) who owns the local bookstore. She lends Nan a book on devil worship, and it's difficult to believe that she has no idea what is really going on where she lives, especially considering her father the Reverend has no parishioners. But when that twist occurs, it's time for Dick and Bill to come to the rescue, and the first half of the film is practically repeated save for the dramatic finale. Apparently endorsing the view that it's perfectly reasonable to burn suspected witches due to there being no smoke without fire, what City of the Dead really needs is a sense of mystery, but - the odd dodgy American accent aside, this being a British production - it has a polished look that belies its low budget, and a splendidly ominous mood. Music by Douglas Gamley.