The most imposing of all the Draculas, Christopher Lee died Sunday in London at the age of 93. With a powerful voice and formidable presence, Lee made his name as the villain in scores of British horror films from Hammer studios, memorably portraying Dracula, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s monster, Rasputin, Mephistopheles, the Mummy, as well as dozens of other random evil Counts, bloodthirsty vampires, suspicious doctors, nefarious priests, and various other sinister ne’er do wells.
He found use besides terrifying young maidens for that saucy baritone, recording a metal album in 2010 entitled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, and the follow up in 2013, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
Though Lee never struggled to land work, in his Eighties he found himself in the unlikely position of starring in two of the most financially successful franchises in movie history: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He also worked regularly in his later years in blockbusters directed by Tim Burton, and was a ready, welcome face in an assortment of indie horror flicks in his later years.
Lee was truly among the most iconic, most elegant, most impressive actors working in or outside of genre filmmaking. Do yourself a favor and rediscover some of the darkly magical work of the great Sir Christopher Lee.
Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958)
In 1958, British studio Hammer began its long and fabulous love affair with the cloaked one, introducing the irrefutably awesome Christopher Lee as the Count.
Their tale varies a bit from Stoker’s, but the main players are mostly accounted for. Peter Cushing steps in early and often as Van Helsing, bringing his inimitable brand of prissy kick-ass, but it’s Lee who carries the film.
Six foot 5 and sporting that elegant yet sinister baritone, Lee cuts by far the most intimidating figure of the lot as Dracula. Director Terence Fisher uses that to the film’s advantage by developing a far more vicious, brutal vampire than what we’d seen previously.
Still the film is about seduction, though, which gives Lee’s brute force an unseemly thrill. Unlike so many victims in other vampire tales, it’s not just that Melissa Stribling’s Mina is helpless to stop Dracula’s penetration. She’s in league. She wants it.
Ribald stuff for 1958!
The Wicker Man 1973
In the early Seventies, Robin Hardy created a film that fed on the period’s hippie versus straight hysteria.
Uptight Brit constable Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the private island Summerisle investigating charges of a missing child. His sleuthing leads him into a pagan world incompatible with his sternly Christian point of view.
Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the particularly saucy Christopher Lee. I love him in the role of Lord Summerisle, though it helps that he gets all the great lines. For instance, “Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent,” he deadpans.
When Howie asks, “And what of the one true God?”
Summerisle responds, “Well, he’s dead. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.”
Blasphemy indeed! No wonder Howie’s so up in arms. Plus there’s that naked barmaid and her sexy come-hither dance.
The film is hardly a horror movie at all – more of a subversive comedy of sorts – until the final reel or so. Starting with the creepy animal masks (that would become pretty popular in the genre a few decades later), then the parade, and then the finale, things take quite a creepy turn leading to what is still a very powerful climax.
Burke and Hare (2010)
Throughout his career, Lee made numerous, memorable cameos. Playing on his decades in genre film work, his quick appearances delivered a wink and a shudder to any true horror fan. From the LEGO Movie to The Wicker Tree to just about everything Tim Burton did after Mars Attacks, films benefitted from that otherworldly presence, even if only for a moment. Among the most fun is John Landis’s 2010 horror comedy about Europe’s famed corpse makers, Burke and Hare.
The film, loosely based on historical fact, follows William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis – greatest living performance-capture actor making a rare flesh and blood appearance). It’s the age of enlightenment, and advances in medical science necessitate more fresh dissecting corpses in Edinburgh’s medical colleges. In a touching tale of capitalism in action, these two blokes simply found a need and filled it.
Landis’s approach is darkly comical, a choice he announces in the opening moments: This is a true story, except for the parts that are not. His game cast – including the always welcome Tom Wilkinson, the gloriously weird Tim Curry, and Lee as the pair’s first real victim – proves up to the challenge.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I admit it – I had not read these books when I took my son to see the first of these films. As he and I huddled together in our seats, hoping little Frodo and Sam could outrun the Wraiths with the help of the magnificent Ian McKellan, we were naïve enough to believe that the White Wizard would be their salvation. Until I saw who it was.
I whispered to my boy, “He is not going to help them.”
Such is the effortless villainy of Christopher Lee. His simple presence fills you with fear – and then he speaks. That voice, so commanding and mocking and glorious.
Lee was 79 years old when Peter Jackson filmed the first trilogy and he twirled that staff, mounted that horse and commanded those Orcs like an ageless power. Like a boss.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Beginning in the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios begin making lurid period horror, banking on the awesome horror duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Their first collaboration was longtime Hammer director Terence Fisher’s take on the Shelley text, Curse of Frankenstein.
All bubbling potions and bunsen burners, Cushing’s laboratory (don’t forget to pronounce that middle ‘o’) is as fine a home to unholy alchemy as any. Jovially laissez faire in matters of a moral nature, his sinister acts in the name of science are well played.
His mad doctor is, at heart, a spoiled child. His behavior is outrageous, repugnant, but fascinating.
Christopher Lee made a fantastic Dracula – all elegance, height and menace. His Frankenstein’s monster is an almost unrecognizable change of pace. He’s rotty flesh, dead eye and sutures. Though his performance certainly lacks the vulnerability and innocence that made Boris Karloff’s version iconic, his version is more raw menace.