by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Earlier today it was announced that the legendary film star recognised the world over, Sir Christopher Lee, had passed away. Famed for his iconic movie roles, many of which were villains in the horror and sci-fi genre, unfortunately no amount of virgin’s blood, ancient Egyptian curses or black magic will bring him back this time. The world of cinema has lost one of its true greats.
Star of over 200 movies in total, stretching as far back as his pre-Hammer Horror collaborations with Terence Fisher in the 1940’s, right the way through to last year’s multi-million pound blockbuster The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it’s fair to say that he has left behind a rich legacy of films. Whatever age you are, you will know Christopher Lee for one role or another. As Scott Weinberg said on Twitter: “Do you have kids? They know who Christopher Lee is. Are your grandparents around? So do they“. And it’s completely true. Whether you grew up with Lee burning wicker effigies in the 70’s, or whether he’s Saruman the White wizard to you, he’s known to multiple generations.
To honour his remarkable talent and to hopefully reflect even a smidgen of the impact he’s had on the movie industry, here’s a quick list (in no particular order) of ten of his films that he is undoubtedly the star of.
Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and… Christopher Lee. Whoever your favourite classic horror film icon may be, in the mid-50’s the genre was flagging. Surpressed by its flashy American counterparts, or the subject of ribbing over Universal’s cartoonish nature. Without this full colour Hammer Horror film, who knows what might have happened to the independent British horror genre. Notoriously difficult to finance due to the legal wrangles with Universal over the rights to the Transylvanian Count, Dracula was shot on a budget of just £81,000. And yet, over a million people flocked to see the debonair giant Christopher Lee (at 6 ft 5 in) devour buxom hapless ladies. Much, much darker and more gruesome in tone than Lugosi’s take on the aristocratic vampire some 25-30 years earlier, Lee’s imposing presence terrified audiences back then and possibly still does even now. Of course, he would go onto play the character quite a few more times with …. less success. Nevertheless, Dracula still ranks amongst his finest performances.
Lest we forget, of course, that it was actually this film released the year before Dracula that actually shot Christopher Lee to stardom. Hammer’s first colour feature film, after the relative success of X-rated black and white horror The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequel, it took until 1957 for director Terence Fisher to join the studio for them to really be propelled into the big leagues. Whether it was the result of a genius at work, or just sheer dumb luck, they seemed to stumble upon the perfect formula with Lee as the monster and Cushing as the hero. As you can read in my Horrorble Month article from last year, they’re two genuinely impressive performances that elevate The Curse of Frankenstein from being simply ‘quite good’, to ‘immensely entertaining’, virtually by themselves.
And whilst we’re talking about Fisher, Lee and Cushing during Hammer Horror’s golden period, one last pick of their movies together that’s worth a mention is The Mummy. Mainly because, ahem, I haven’t seen The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sorry. Er, swiftly moving on. Unfortunately, whilst the overall quality of The Mummy is debatable, not quite at the level of the previous two – and whilst I’d never bad mouth Peter Cushing! Ever! – there’s only really one reason to watch this. Yep, you guessed it; Christopher Lee. From the make-up and practical effects used on the creepy silent ancient mummy coming to life, “bringing terror and death across 4000 years”, to Lee’s slow lumbering stalking, it really makes you appreciate just how great he was. It’s worth watching purely to see him do one of the things he did best (and perhaps somewhat underratedly these days?), which is just simply being the unstoppable terrifying monster. There’s probably none better, before or since. And there probably never will be, either.
It wasn’t all serious horror films for Christopher Lee throughout his career. Sometimes, he displayed his famous wicked sense of humour in the choice of characters he made. Take, for example, his part Joe Dante’s Disney comedy sequel, Gremlins 2. In this, he pops up as a bit-part character, Doctor Catheter, a mad scientist experimenting on mutating animals. Something rather obviously playing on Lee’s reputation for constantly portraying the villain, his over the top performance steals the scene almost every single time he’s on screen. Even though the film is a cartoony little fluff piece to pass a Sunday afternoon, Lee himself is magnificent and huge amounts of fun.
One director, whatever your opinion of him, who truly loves the classic horror genre like few others is Tim Burton. From casting Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands, to creating a whole film about Ed Wood, to give him credit, the guy clearly loves the b-movie. Which is why, even though I may not be a fan of most of his latter films, it’s great to see Christopher Lee honoured by Burton with a handful of slightly larger cameo roles every now and again. He pops up in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride and probably my favourite of his surprise roles, the town Burgomaster in Sleepy Hollow who sends Johnny Depp off to carry out his investigations into the town’s recent murders. And once again he can be found displaying the lighter humour that he was both renowned and admired for. He’s quite frequently been the highlight in some of Burton’s less critically acclaimed movies.
Proving he could pull off just about any role available to him and turn it into something incredibly memorable, even when wearing women’s clothes and dancing around a field burning a policeman to death, The Wicker Man is one of his most beloved low budget British movies. There’s more to The Wicker Man that makes it such a classic than simply the performance of Christopher Lee… but it certainly helps! As Lord Summerisle, head of a small cultish Scottish town with some rather bizarre rituals, his charisma makes him seem both likable and dangerous. It’s absolutely perfect casting to pit him alongside the sterner Edward Woodward as the two have chemistry together that emulates that shared between Lee & Cushing in his earlier films. A kind of wary friction that permeates through the screen and infects the viewer.
There’s probably three things you need to know about The Man with the Golden Gun. Firstly, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond film, so set your expectations to “goofy”. Secondly, there’s a man with a gun made of gold (evident from the title, I imagine?) Finally, it has Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee, who is probably one of the most recognisable villains in the Bond back catalogue. Let’s just say, in a line up of topless decapitated Bond villains, his distinguishing feature will probably make him the first one you can identify. Surprisingly though, Scaramanga actually gets a lot less screen time than you probably remember. He certainly had less than I remembered back when I rewatched The Man with the Golden Gun for the first time as an adult ahead of our Bond special podcast in 2012. It was a shame he didn’t appear on screen more, as he lit up the picture frequently. It’s great to see Lee play a slightly more nuanced and complex villain with an in depth backstory for a change and still be fantastic at it.
Probably less well known of Christopher Lee’s films behind even the likes of Fu Manchu and Howling II (neither of which are making it on this list!) but still one of my personal favourite performances of his is as the crazy Russian advisor, Rasputin. Sure, OK, the film is so very melodramatic and wildly inaccurate (historically speaking); it would be understandable for someone to expect very little going into Rasputin. It does not deserve to be as brilliant as it actually, honestly, God-help-me is. Lee as the mad Russian monk with his supernatural healing powers and hairy face utterly dominates. Horse-and-cart-jacking his way from one drinking game to the next, womanising, hypnotising and bellowing all the way to the top, Lee is absolutely superb. I know it sounds like I’m overstating his role, but I genuinely believe this is perhaps his most unappreciated performance. It’s more than just a schlocky mid-60’s Hammer Horror film because Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee makes it thus.
Repeating my long-held opinion on the Star Wars films will be a massive waste of time for all involved here. As has been established plenty of times during the 160 episodes of our podcast, George Lucas’s space adventure films just aren’t for me, I’m afraid. However, I don’t think I would be forgiven if I made this list and left out Count Dooku. Even I can’t deny that he deserves his place here. He’s actually one of the more sympathetic characters in the Star Wars universe, having basically turned to the dark side of the force because he hated the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the Jedi’s. In fairness, it’s enough to turn anybody to the dark side. I suppose the fact that he’s also a massive arrogant dick probably made the job easier for Darth Sidious. Starting a full scale war might also count against him too. Regardless, it’s not a completely wild accusation for me to say this film is basically carried by Christopher Lee’s broad shoulders.
I could’ve picked any of his performances as Saruman the White from Peter Jackson’s middle earth films. In The Two Towers, that’s probably his finest accomplishment throughout the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films combined as he and Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey clash during a siege. But just think about this for a second. Last year, some sixty six years after making his big screen debut, now a 90+ year old man, he was still making huge blockbuster films! And in the third instalment of The Hobbit, which is at time of publishing his last on screen performance, he convincingly portrayed an arse-kicking heroic wizard with all the enthusiasm you’d have expected a fresh faced 26 year old to muster. To have had such a verve for life after having already lived such a full and truly astonishing 93 years on this planet, and to still have gotten excited about doing his job as excellently as he possibly could, he’s just a credit to everyone and I for one will sorely miss seeing him in new movies.