As soon as I heard that Christopher Lee had passed away, it seemed almost like I’d lost a friend or a relative. That may sound disrespectful to Lee’s actual friends and relatives, but I’m nearly 44 years old, and Lee has been there in my life since a very early age, helping me ferment and expand my already partially formed love of cinema and especially the horror movie. I read books about horror movies before I ever even saw one, then would sneak downstairs to watch them after my parents had gone to bed. The old black and white horrors were occasionally okay in their opinion to watch if they were out or something, but the colour ones weren’t really considered suitable to view and they were always on so late anyway, not that the latter would bother me who would have to look totally ‘with it’ when I got up the following morning and not let on that the previous night I’d stayed up till 3am watching a double bill of Dracula Prince Of Darkness and Rasputin The Mad Monk.
These films always used to be on TV you see, always on a Friday or Saturday night, and not just the Hammers, but the ones from Amicus, Tigon, American International, you name it. Of course all these old school chillers seem like tame stuff now but they were often bloody scary when a sudden noise could just as likely be your mum coming downstairs for a glass of water as it could be Dracula deciding to break into the house. And most of the time either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, or sometimes if you were really lucky both of them together, would be in the film you were watching. It became rather comforting, seeing them on screen time and time again. I guess I was drawn more to Lee as he had the more fun roles, the roles I would like to play and even re-enact in the school playground with the other cool kids who had seen these films. And of course Lee was still making films, but I was the kind of person who watched my first James Bond film The Man with The Golden Gun not because it was about an invincible globetrotting spy constantly engaged in car chases and fights and bedding glamorous women. No, it was because Dracula was in it.
So you will now probably understand what I meant when I said that losing Lee was like losing a friend or relative. He was always there for me, and still is. He was often the character or monster I wanted to be, always giving gravitas to whatever role he was playing, though of course it was the horror films to which I kept returning most to and always will do. For a long time Lee didn’t like talking about his horror work, especially Dracula, though I think the latter was largely because he was frustrated with not being allowed to do what he wanted with the role. However, he definitely mellowed on the subject, evidenced by his presence on the DVD releases of some of his films, so I don’t think he would be overly annoyed by my emphasising of his horror work above his other roles. Of course I was overjoyed that he became a genuine superstar and reached new audiences with his Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings parts, but, considering that he remains in most people’s eyes, even if they haven’t seen any of the films, the definitive Dracula, wasn’t he already a superstar back in 1958 when the first Hammer Dracula was released? In any case, he was always a superstar to me, his three best qualities to me being his hypnotic quality, meaning that it’s hard to take your eyes off him when he’s on screen, his dignity whereby he took every single role, no matter how poor it was [and he made a total of 281, yes 281 including voice work, films, and just loved to work, so of course there are some ‘below par’ movies in there], seriously, and his sonorous voice.
Rather than go through his incredible and incredibly diverse, career, something I partially did when I wrote an article about Lee for the 2012 Horror Cult Films Lifetime Achievement Award, I have decided to list my top ten favourite Lee performances, at least at the time of writing [these things change you know!] Of course I haven’t come anywhere near to seeing his whole output, but these are the parts I will always look forward to revisiting most time and time again.
How could one not include this, the actor seeming to draw on some of his older roles, especially a certain vampire Count, to play Tolkien’s wizard in Peter Jackson’s amazing trilogy, and Tolkien even wanted him to play Gandalf when he was alive.
Lee claimed that his [sadly not widely seen] performance as the real-life founder of Pakistan was his best, and it’s certainly extremely authoritative and convincing, aided immensely by the fact that Lee looks just like the man.
Though he doesn’t have a very large role, Lee makes the most of the most literate dialogue he was ever given in possibly the finest movie he ever made and definitely the best horror film he appeared in.
Lee shows his great expertise as a swordsman in these superb swashbucklers and, replete with eye patch, gives the oft-played villainous role a touch of tragedy.
Boris Karloff may always be the iconic Frankenstein Monster, but Lee’s essaying of the role is still remarkable, finding some pathos in Hammer’s hideous depiction of the character and with truly unnerving puppet-like movements.
The part of the true life monk with immense hypnotic powers was simply made for Lee, and he really makes the most of the role in Hammer’s not-very-accurate film.
Lee was actually quite often on the side of good and was no better battling evil than he was in Hammer’s superb Dennis Wheatley adaptation, exactly who you would want when you’re facing demons and black magic, knowledgeable in every matter but also great in physical action.
The film may not really be a classic Bond, but Lee’s performance as a mirror image of 007 is extremely intuitive, to the point where he’s sometimes more appealing than Roger Moore!
Despite the fact that Lee’s voice is dubbed, he’s simply incredible as the ghostly aristocrat with a penchant for whipping his lover in Mario Bava’s beautiful nightmare, the part allowing him to really make the most of his somewhat cruel sex appeal, and letting the viewer really understand how the heroine can be both attracted to and repelled by him.
1/ COUNT DRACULA [DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS 1965]
Lee made seven Hammer Dracula films, but for some reason I like him best in the second one. He refused to speak the dialogue he was given, and doesn’t even have much screen time, but this means that he makes the most of every single appearance and acts so brilliantly that he doesn’t need words. He’s superbly scary, ferocious, sexy and just ever so slightly tragic.
Christopher Lee 27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015. RIP