“Burn witch! Burn witch! BURN WITCH BURN!”
That’s a very young Christopher Lee shouting his way through a horrifying witch-burning flashback in the opening to 1960’s Horror Hotel. Lee would go on to make a huge career for himself as the Dracula (as well as Fu Manchu), and has appeared in the Lord of the Rings, the new Star Wars trilogy, and even took a turn as Johnny Depp’s dad in the newer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Basically, Lee is the British version of Samuel L. Jackson — or maybe it’s the other way around, but in either case Lee has had an extremely prolific career.
But it’s in this old horror flick that you see his career-making blank horror stare in its infancy. He plays Professor Alan Driscoll, an absurdly serious professor who (rather recklessly, I might say) sends a student interested in witchcraft to a hotel/coven in New England. You can read a full plot summary over at IMDB, but suffice it to say that the hotel student Nan Barlow heads to is, indeed, full of horrors. Nan ends up disappearing, prompting a group of skeptics and boyfriends alike to head out on a search and kick some witch ass.
Horror Hotel is such a gem because it comes from the period that, at least in my eyes, really defined the basic structure of the horror genre forever. Playing off of Lee’s taskmaster character are the film’s young folks, who, considering it was filmed in the late fifties, are basically the original teenagers. Their various caricatures have stood the test of time: there’s the wisecracking lead, the tough skeptic, the daring woman who gets captured, and the sassy female savior.
Even more than its value as a history lesson on OG teenagers, I dig Horror Hotel because it is an excellent representation of the horror era that focused more on mood, design, and suspense to instill fear, rather than outright shock, be it loud sound effects or gore. Horror Hotel just feels creepy, and it balances that vibe with some rather striking — witches burning — and unsettling — couples dancing in a dark basement — scenes. I won’t give up the ending, but expect sacrifices of beautiful women on hilarious made-up holidays. Enjoy!
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.