R.I.P. CHRISTOPER LEE (27 MAY 1922 – 7 JUNE 2015)

In honor of the late Christopher Lee, we are pushing our scheduled post of The Babadook back to next Thursday.

Christopher Lee ( 27 May 1922-7 June 2015) was the last surviving male horror icon. is now the sole remaining star of “golden age” horror.

Lee’s incredible career spanned seventy years and more than one hundred films. Although his stardom was secured in ‘s Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), made for Hammer studios, Lee’s film debut came eleven years earlier in Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948).

Playing a strikingly different Frankenstein’s monster than Karloff’s iconic interpretation catapulted Lee into stardom as the new half of horror’s dynamic duo (together with his beloved friend ). Essentially, the two were the new and . Lee even had the opportunity to act opposite Karloff in Corridors of Blood (1958) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968, also starring Steele).

Despite playing familiar monsters, Lee was no mere imitator and, with Cushing, imprinted his own individual stamp on a genre that desperately needed him. His film work has been featured frequently here at 366 Weird Movies.  The following are highlights of “Christopher Lee at 366 Weird Movies.”

Christoper Lee Horror of DraculaIn The Horror Of Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancée is lovely. I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word.

Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.

The Gorgon (1964) is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Carla ( Barbara Shelley, who gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl).

Paul (Richard Prasco) is a student of Professor Karl Meister (Lee) in a rare, and quite good, turn as a sympathetic character). Mesiter, who has arrived to assist Paul, knows that it is Carla who is possessed by Megaera, but Paul passionately rejects his professor’s conclusion and is even more intensely driven to get Carla away from the town and Namaroff. Namaroff, channeling Lon Chaney tragic magic, sacrifices himself for his unrequited love, but he is not the only victim. Indeed, the film ends quite pessimistically… The Gorgon is a refreshingly unique entry from Hammer, thanks, in no small part, to a director who took the most unlikely material and crafted it into something poetic.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966) is the finale of Fishers’ vampire trilogy, and is generally considered the weakest. While it lacks the imaginative touch of Brides of Dracula (1960), Prince is an underrated, worthy conclusion to the trilogy, vigorously characteristic of Fishers’ penchant for fervent religious drama.

Hammer Studios predictably took a stab at the Mummy character with 1959’s The Mummy. They spared no expense in once again soliciting the talents of director Terence Fisher along with top stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Where they did spare expense was in an original story. The Mummy (1959) liberally borrowed elements from the formulaic Universal series, and reincarnated the reincarnated princess plot. Briskly paced direction from Fisher, along with sumptuous color from Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher, almost overcomes the paint-by-number plot, which screenwriter Jimmy Sangster tried valiantly to inject with his own sensibilities. Of course, the medium of film is more than mere storytelling, and The Mummy is a film that tries to go a long way to prove that; because, rehashed story aside, the film itself is no lumbering undead. It may be Fisher’s most energetic work.

Peter Cushing, as Dr. Banning, is in enthusiastic form. No one can get strangled like Cushing, and his near-death experience and confrontation with co-star Lee in Banning’s study is pure red-blooded Fisher, ranking with the acting duo’s battle in Horror of Dracula.

Christopher Lee is the darling among genre fans. He is far more discussed than his frequent co-star.  As iconic an actor as Lee is, his favored status is something of a slight to Cushing, since the latter is, normally, the superior actor. However, in this film, the acting honors are a draw, with Lee giving an admirably nuanced, minimalist performance as the title character. Lee’s Kharis cannot compete with Karloff’s masterful Imhotep, but Lee invests genuine pathos, dread, and menace into the role.

Kharis’ resurrection from the swamp is beautifully photographed and effectively conveys robust dread. Another well-shot sequence is the mummy’s entrance into an asylum to exact revenge on Banning’s father.

After The Wicker Man (discussed below), my own personal favorite Lee film may be Horror Express (1972), although 366’s was somewhat less enthusiastic: “Peter Cushing’s contribution as Dr. Wells is unfortunately less than it might have been. As the gleeful old rogue who gets all the best lines, he should have been a more prominent foil to Lee’s arrogant, pompous, and frankly rather unpleasant Professor Saxton. Sadly, at the time, Cushing was crushed by the recent death of his beloved wife, from which he never really recovered. He actually walked off the set of Horror Express because he felt too miserable to perform, and only returned after his good friend Christopher Lee managed to cheer him up a bit. On screen he looks desperately thin and frail (especially next to the towering Lee) and far from happy, though he manages to carry off the part with a certain aplomb. But it does look as though his part was trimmed. It’s a shame he wasn’t given more to do. The scenes with both Wells and Saxton work far better than those in which the stiff, humorless Saxton has nobody to counterbalance him.”

Christopher LeeIn 1973 Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to The Wicker Man.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”

366’s G. Smalley wrote, “At its heart, The Wicker Man is story of the clash of two dogmatically opposed cultures, as represented by Edward Woodward’s stern and judgmental Christian officer and Christopher Lee’s suave and manipulative Lord Summerisle, the puppet master behind the new, sexually free pagan society of the island… The pagan religion of Summerisle, at bottom, is all about sex.  On the one hand, it’s about the sexual habits of vegetables, the fruiting of the crops (which are, notably, experimental strains that are ‘unnatural’ to these Scottish islands). On the other hand, the townspeople’s daily worship and activity seems to resolve almost entirely around sex, whether it’s Britt Ekland’s divine whore who initiates virgin boys into manhood, women who jump over bonfires naked hoping to become pregnant by parthenogenesis, or a cross-dressing Christopher Lee.”

Even more than Karloff and Lugosi, Lee and Cushing were the quintessential horror genre team, so much so that we were always a little surprised (and perhaps a bit disappointed) to see one without the other. While most American fans preferred (who co-starred with the duo in 1983’s House Of Long Shadows), Price could admittedly give into fruity performances. Even in the worst dreck, Cushing and Lee were never less than grand guignol class actors.  It probabaly helped that, unlike their predecessors, Cushing and Lee had mutual respect and genuine affection for one another, resulting in over twenty collaborations. Some of the most interesting were in non-franchise entries: Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959-for some; the best screen treatment to date of this famous narrative), Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965), She (1965), Scream And Scream Again (1970), the anthology; House That Dripped Blood (1971), I, Monster (1971-a decidedly off –beat variation of Jekyll and Hyde), and The Creeping Flesh (1973).

Although the Fisher-directed Dracula films were easily the best of the Hammer lot, Lee as an erotic, savage, Transylvanian animal redeemed even the weakest entries (1974’s Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, minus Lee, is ample proof of what the actor brought to the series). Lee played Dracula in nine films (ten, if you include his unnamed vampire in The Magic Christian). One standout was the low budget, but literal 1970 non-Hammer, Jesse Franco directed: Count Dracula.

Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes were also recurring roles for the actor. He was an aptly animated Rasputin (1966) and did excellent work in underrated films for Mario Bava (Hercules In the Haunted World-1961, The Whip And The Body-1963) and Terence Fisher (Man Who Could Cheat Death-1959, Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll-1960, The Devil Rides Out-1968).

Lee was one of the few memorable 007 foils, albeit in the wrong film (his Scaramanga being the only redeeming virtue of Man With The Golden Gun-1974). His cameo in Gremlins 2 (1990) was shrewdly amusing. Age failed to slow him down as he became known to new generations for his work in the second Star Wars trilogy, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, his various productions with Tim Burton, and The Hobbit (2012).

We probably took Lee for granted, but now he joins his maker and adversary in celluloid history. There is no one to either replace or succeed them.

Coverage of Lee’s work can also be found here in Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Magic Christian (1969), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005),  Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Dark Shadows (2012).

From , cover artist for the 366 Weird Movies 2014 Yearbook, indie filmmaker and certified Lee fan:

“Christopher Lee… my all time favorite actor is gone. He was the king of awesome. My favorite film of his, believe it or not, is not a Dracula movie. It’s Horror Express staring Lee and the amazing Peter Cushing. It also contains a brilliant performance by Telly Savalas.

But not all the greats are gone yet. Barbara Steele is still here.

I’ve got a pretty good memory and I still remember seeing my first horror film with my dad at 3 years old. It was an important moment that needed permanent storage in my noggin. Christopher Lee had no lines in this film. But what that guy could do with his eyes, face, expressions… I was hooked!”

4 thoughts on “R.I.P. CHRISTOPER LEE (27 MAY 1922 – 7 JUNE 2015)”

  1. Lee will truly be missed. The one iconic thing I remember most about him is that distinctive English voice he had.

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