*Spoiler alert* ….for a set of films you’ve had as long to see as Tom Cruise has had to be alive.
Both Psycho and The City of the Dead (also known as Horror Hotel in the U.S.), two films whose productions began within a month of each other, feature a curious and counter-intuitive narrative device: Following their main character as they hurtle towards imminent danger, only to kill them off at about the halfway mark, and shift focus to supporting characters as they try to piece together the mystery of what’s happened to the dearly departed protagonist. Why then, is Psycho held in such high esteem for its narrative invention, whilst The City of the Dead is left firmly affixed in the B-movie canon, so ignored as to fall into the public domain.
First, to what works. Psycho operates as a thoroughly involving film of one kind, a gripping thriller following a woman on the lam with a stolen envelope of $40 000, only to shift entirely, leaving us to question just how twisted this film will really get following her brutal murder. The still-living characters and their personal drama may be far less interesting in the second half, vanilla even when compared to the thrillingly macabre Norman, but the mystery heightens tremendously, and so we fear for them. It’s a unique sort of dramatic irony; we know more than they do, but we’re sure we don’t know it all, and we’re not so sure we want to find out what’s waiting down in the fruit cellar.
The City of the Dead is pretty short as it is at an hour and 17 minutes, and so writer George Baxt doesn’t have as much room to develop the sort of suspense that makes Psycho’s twist so nail-biting, but any chance to do so is already wrecked by the film’s opening scene. We see the residents of Whitewood burning a witch at the stake, she howls a curse into the billowing thunderstorm above, and everything waiting in Whitewood is spelled out for us before we even meet our ill-fated protagonists.
When we lay eyes on the very same witch burned in the opening scene, alive and running a hotel in 1960, there is no question of what’s to come for the visiting sacrificial lamb, Elizabeth Selwyn. The motivations of a suspicious Professor, played wonderfully by Christopher Lee, are in question, but we know exactly what’s to be uncovered by those who go looking for Elizabeth, and we know no one is in danger till the strike of the “thirteenth hour”, when the ritual can commence. Once the intrepid Elizabeth is taken out of the picture, we’re left with fundamentally underdeveloped and dreary characters, who pick up the pieces of a puzzle long since solved for the audience (and unearthed by now-dead characters). Things play out as they will.
Think of the scenes where our protagonists are prematurely killed-off: the obscured silhouette of the shower scene, and the hold-nothing-back ritual sacrifice. These are the turning points in both films, and they betray the mastery of Hitchcock and the schlock gimmickry of Shepperton Studios’ effort. Hitchcock may have used his ‘Alfred Hitchcock presents’ television crew to make Psycho, but The City of the Dead is distinctively the film originally written to be a TV-pilot, and this much is clear. Psycho’s twist is a master at work, reminding you that you have no idea what could happen next. The City of the Dead’s twist is the after-effect of a plot-extension into feature length.