Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): HORROR HOTEL

The second time Christopher Lee has made it into a Film That Haunts Me, and certainly not the last. In the days when Hammer was dominating the market, there were still smaller horror films being produced, and this is one of the most striking examples. Once again delving into the world of witches, today we check into the HORROR HOTEL.

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(Not the most accurate title, but its alternative is a big spoiler.) This low-budget chiller follows a young college student as she travels to a mysterious colonial village to research witchcraft. She picked the right place – the witches who were burned at the stake centuries ago have decided it’s high time to get revenge. When the student goes missing, it’s up to her boyfriend and her brother to find her, but the witches are more powerful than they realize.

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While lesser known than similar films of the time, this one is notable for two reasons. (SPOILERS!) One, it pulled a “Psycho” – surprise-killing of your protagonist – halfway into the film. Two, its atmosphere is so overwhelmingly unnatural that the events, while familiar, become more disturbing than they should be. Disembodied chants, smothering fog, suspicious townspeople who stare too long – it’s all there, working to suffocate the audience in unnamed dread. It won’t catch everyone, but it certainly got me. Sure, it’s cheesy 60’s horror, but there are a few scenes that are so sudden and brutal that I was legitimately shocked.

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There is a lot to appreciate here, namely the classic plot and the ever-terrific presence of Christopher Lee – but the craft of the film is also remarkable. The soundtrack is full of weird chants and shrieks, the lighting is surreal, and the set design is brilliant – the fog-filled streets and creeping secret corridors are both beautiful and very, very eerie. For such a low budget and an unceremonious release, “Horror Hotel” presents a delicately-crafted piece of cinema, detailed and measured. That is why it stands above the other double-billed B movies of the time.

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As an example of low-budget genius, and a generally entertaining occult thriller, “Horror Hotel” (or “City of the Dead”) is equal to its contemporaries like “Carnival of Souls” and even “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s a creeping, dreadful, dark film that chills just beyond the surface. And hopefully you won’t hear the Candlemass chants as they come for you.

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