CHRISTOPHER LEE – An Appreciation
By Michael Arruda
Christopher Lee has died.
Lee, the last of the iconic classic horror movie actors, passed away on Sunday June 7, 2015. He was 93.
Lee belonged to a class of actors that simply doesn’t exist anymore: the horror movie icon. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee all made their living acting primarily in horror movies, and they endeared themselves to horror fans their entire careers. You just don’t see that anymore.
Sadly, with Lee’s passing, these horror giants have all left us.
Lee enjoyed a long and prolific career. He has an astounding 278 acting credits listed on IMDB, which is much more than Karloff’s 206, Price’s 197, Chaney’s 195, Cushing’s 132, and Lugosi’s 115.
In spite of his iconic horror star status, Lee did his best to distance himself from horror movies in the 1970s, as he starred as the villain Scaramanga in the James Bond movie THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974) and appeared in other non-genre films like Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and AIRPORT ’77 (1977). Later in his career, at an age where most other actors slow down, Lee sped up, appearing in not one but two blockbuster series in the 2000s, starring as Count Dooku in the second STAR WARS trilogy, and as the villainous Saruman in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, as a result creating a new generation of fans.
Lee’s horror movie career began with his performance as the Frankenstein monster, or as he was called in the film, the “Creature,” in the first Hammer blockbuster THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). This was the movie that put Hammer Films on the map and also served to revitalize the classic horror movie industry. It was England’s biggest money maker of the year.
The film’s main star was Peter Cushing, who played Victor Frankenstein. Cushing had spent the early part of the 1950s becoming a household name on British television. Signing him to play Victor Frankenstein was a major coup on Hammer’s part. As expected, Cushing dominates throughout THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and his masterful performance as Victor Frankenstein is one of the main reasons the film became an international success.
But another reason for the film’s success was the performance of an unknown actor named Christopher Lee who played the Creature. It is largely believed and acknowledged by Lee that the only reason he got the part was because of his 6’5” height.
Early on, Lee was not recognized by critics for his performance as the Creature, which was viewed as inferior to Karloff’s iconic performance in the Universal Frankenstein movies of the 1930s. But there’s much more to Lee’s performance than initially meets the eye.
It’s easy to look past Lee’s work in this film. After all, the movie is largely dominated by Peter Cushing and his new villainous take on the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein.
Also, Lee had no dialogue as the Creature, and thirdly and most importantly, the Creature was not the main focus of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein movies of the 1930s where the focus was on the monster, here in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN it was on Cushing’s doctor.
All this being said, Lee’s take on the Creature is actually very impressive. With no lines of dialogue, he used his pantomime skills to a large extent in the role, especially in one of the film’s best scenes, where Cushing tries to show off his Creature’s intelligence, but the Creation looks more like a frightened obedient pet than a newly born genius.
Lee is terribly scary in the role. Underneath Phil Leakey’s hideous make-up, Lee’s expressions are viciously frightening. Lee also captures both sides of this Creature brilliantly. While Lee’s Creature is less sympathetic than Karloff’s Monster, as Lee’s Creature is a psychotic murderer who kills without remorse for most of the movie, at times, as in the scene with the blind man, he acts like someone newly born and frightened. Considering his minimal screen time, it really is an extraordinary performance.
There’s a funny story from the set of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Lee was upset that he didn’t have any lines of dialogue, until co-star Peter Cushing told him “You shouldn’t be. You see, I’ve read the script!” The two became lifelong friends and would go on to star in twenty-two movies together.
It would take one more movie for Lee to become a household name, and that film was HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Lee became an instant sensation as Dracula, the role for which he would become most famous, starring opposite Peter Cushing once again, as this time Cushing played Dr. Van Helsing.
HORROR OF DRACULA is widely considered to be Hammer’s best shocker.
It’s another amazing performance by Lee. Cushing again dominates this movie, but Lee matches his co-star’s intensity, which is even more remarkable when you consider that as Dracula he only has 13 lines of dialogue and is onscreen for something like 12 minutes. Lee is so good as Dracula he remains in your head even when he’s not in the movie.
Though he resisted for many years, Lee finally agreed to play Dracula again in the Hammer sequel DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). He would appear as Dracula in seven Hammer Dracula films. The third film in the series, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) remains Hammer Film’s biggest moneymaker of all time.
My personal favorite Lee roles and movies are THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, THE WICKER MAN (1973), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958), and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).
I was fortunate enough to have met Christopher Lee once, at a horror movie convention in Baltimore in the late 1990s. It was a wonderful convention, as not only did I meet Lee that weekend, but also Forrest Ackerman, Michael Ripper, Ingrid Pitt, and Veronica Carlson.
I bought Lee’s autobiography that weekend and stood in a long line to have it signed by him. I looked forward with great anticipation at finally meeting him. What happened when I eventually reached him was the worst case of being star struck that I ever suffered.
I had thought of all the things I wanted to say.
“Mr. Lee,” I wanted to say. “I’m a great fan of yours. I’ve seen all your movies and I want to write about your work one day. The movies you made with Peter Cushing influenced my life.”
What did I really say?
Probably something like “Um— hello— er— um—.” It was truly the most tongue-tied moment of my life. However, I’m pretty sure I managed to say “thank you.”
But the better story came later. Of all the celebrities there that weekend, Lee was the least accessible. While other stars were around mingling, Lee never seemed to be separate from his entourage. I never saw him outside his scheduled appearances, until—.
I had to use the rest room. After washing my hands, I headed for the exit when the door burst open and several gentlemen the size of football linebackers rushed inside. They scoped out the rest room, and deeming me not a threat, they called out “all clear!” and the next thing I knew two men, one on each arm, whisked Christopher Lee into the men’s room.
It was like a moment from a SEINFELD episode. With my back to the wall, I watched as my movie hero Christopher Lee was led past me to the urinal. Lee said something as he passed by, something to the effect of “I can take care of things from here,” and the men let go of him.
They may not have seen me as a threat, but they also didn’t want me sticking around, as their intense gazes communicated to me. As I left the restroom, I found my uncle, his son, and my brother waiting for me. They had seen Lee enter the restroom.
My uncle laughed.
“What?” I said.
“Now you can always say you peed with Christopher Lee,” he said.
That might be my claim to fame.
Of course the big news that weekend was that Lee announced he would be appearing in not one, but two major blockbuster productions. He wasn’t at liberty to tell us the names of these movies, but the news still generated enormous cheers from the audience. Of course, he was talking about the second STAR WARS trilogy and the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.
Christopher Lee has been an integral part of my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching movies starring Christopher Lee. In fact, he’s been part of my life even before I was born. Huh? See, my mother saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies upon its initial release in 1958 when she was a teenager, and so growing up, I heard all about that movie as being the scariest film she had ever seen.
I’ve seen so many movie images of Christopher Lee, I truly believe his likeness is forever etched in my subconscious. I close my eyes and there is Lee.
The world has lost a major star with the passing of Christopher Lee. For those of us who love horror, we have to wonder, will the world see his likeness again? Will Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price, Cushing and Lee ever be replaced? Who working today may step into that role?
I don’t know.
Sure, for me, Peter Cushing has always been my favorite actor. But Lee is right up there, and he and Cushing complemented each other so well because of their contrasting styles. Cushing was an active actor, constantly moving around, often using props. Watch enough Cushing movies and you realize he can’t seem to stay still in his scenes.
Lee is the opposite. He believed less was more. He didn’t want to call attention to himself in a scene. His strength was that he did more with less, which is why he was so effective as Frankenstein’s Creature and as Dracula. He’d appear in just a handful of scenes, and yet he’d knock your socks off and scare the living daylights out of you.
I will miss Lee tremendously. Through the magic of movies, we can continue to enjoy Lee’s performances throughout the years. But I am still saddened to know that he no longer is with us.
A legend has passed. But like the undead king of the vampires he played so well, his memory and his work are eternal.
CHRISTOPHER LEE – May 27, 1922 – June 7, 2015
Thanks for reading.