Sunday, March 24, 2024

Horror Hotel – One of the best horror films of the 1960s.


Horror Hotel (1960) ranks as one of the best horror films of the 1960s. The film certainly should be on any serious horror movie fan's list of the 100 best horror films of all time. Some similarities can be found in this film to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, also released in 1960, since both films center around a young woman who travels alone to a hotel run by a disturbed individual. The film is also known as City of The Dead, which includes longer dialog from actors in many of the scenes seen in Horror Hotel. Although not considered film noir, Horror Hotel has very dark exterior shots with lots of fog and deep depth of space, which gives viewers a constant sense of menace and atmosphere.

A beautiful young college student named Nan Barlow (Venitia Stevenson) travels to a small Massachusetts town called Whitewood to conduct research on witchcraft for a college course taught by Alan Driscol (Christopher Lee). Barlow finds her way to a creepy, old motel known as the Raven's Inn. The motel is run by Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel). Barlow picks up a hitchhiker named Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) who disappears from her car after they arrive at the Raven's Inn.

After borrowing a book on witchcraft from a local bookstore owner Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), Barlow hears loud chants under the floorboards of her motel room. She opens a trap door in the middle of the floor of her room and finds an underground passage. She stumbles upon a secret chamber with a coven involved in a witchcraft ceremony. One member of the coven is her professor – Alan Discoll. Another member is Mrs. Newless, who is actually the ghost of Elizabeth Selwyn – a woman burned alive as a witch over 200 years earlier.

From the moment Christopher Lee's character of Professor Alan Discoll appears on the screen, the viewer gets a strong sinister sense of evil and doom in his demeanor. On the surface, Discoll appears to be friendly to student Nan Barlow, and wants her to succeed in writing her term paper for the class, but as the plot of the film advances, we see that his intentions of sending Barlow to the Raven's Inn are for his own purposes of sacrificing her to the coven of witches.

Horror Hotel exhibits an interesting contrast of science versus folklore and supernaturalism. Nan Barlow's brother, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is a professor of science, is a skeptic of Driscoll's lectures about witchcraft. He directly tells Driscoll that witchcraft is superstitious nonsense, which angers Driscoll and adds to his sinister appearance in the film. The two men argue about the validity of witchcraft as Barlow makes snarky remarks to Discoll about the topic. Even Nan Barlow's boyfriend, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor) is a skeptic of Nan's desire to learn more about witchcraft and discourages her from traveling to Massachusetts to conduct research on the topic.

Like many Gothic horror films, Horror Hotel relies on the symbolism of the Christian cross to defeat or repel evil in the end. After Bill Maitland crashes his car into a tree on his way to Whitewood to search for Nan, he picks up a cemetery marker of a Christian cross and walks towards a witches coven in the cemetery. The coven is about to sacrifice Patricia Russell on an altar. The shadow of the cross burns members of the coven as he moves closer to them.

Horror Hotel would make an excellent double feature with another 1960s film that deals with witchcraft – The Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm), starring Vincent Price.  You can watch it on YouTube here. Happy viewing.

Steve D. Stones

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