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The Legacy of Christopher Lee

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.


Dracula (1958)

draculaLon 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.


The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

JOHN JAY80Lest 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.


The Mummy (1959)

the mummyAnd 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.


Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

gremlinsIt 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.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

sleepy hollowOne 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.


The Wicker Man (1973)

'The Wicker Man' film - 1973Proving 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.


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

scaramangaThere’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.


Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

rasputinProbably 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.


Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

count dookuRepeating 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.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

sarumanI 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.

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A Horrorble Month

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

I watch a lot of films. When I say “a lot”, I mean, a lot. I’m not boasting about this, I’m sure there are people who watch more and good luck to them! But there hasn’t been a week since the 20 – 26th August 2011 where I haven’t seen at least one film. In fact, the only week since then where I’ve only seen one film was 1st – 7th October 2011. Every week since, I’ve watched a minimum of two films within that seven day period. In 2012 I watched 464 films; in 2013 that rose to 555 films. So far this year, I’ve seen (according to Letterboxd + my private list of films I’ve yet to log on the site) 443 movies.

Yes. Exactly. For someone who doesn’t get paid to do this – who’s not employed by anyone as a professional film critic and holds down a full time job in a completely different industry – I’m fully prepared to accept that I do indeed watch a lot of films. A lot.

This month started no differently to any other from the past three years. I knew I was going to be writing a Decade In Film piece for 1964 soon and in the name of research had acquired a copy of the Vincent Price / Roger Corman classic from that year, The Masque of the Red Death. I watched it. I loved it. The following day, I had a look through my DVD’s to see if I had any other Roger Corman films floating about and there nestled in amongst the piles of unopened hard plastic cases on my shelves, on a three-films-on-one-disc collection, I stumbled across A Bucket of Blood. I watched it. I loved it. I began watching more and more Roger Corman and/or Vincent Price movies and before I knew it, by the 7th of October (amongst a few other movies) I’d seen at least one horror film per day.

It got me thinking; given that Halloween was a mere four weeks away, could I possibly make it to the end of the month, continuing on in the same vein; one horror film per day? I do watch lots of movies, but I am only human! Even I need a break every other day.

But there it was. A challenge had been set (by me) and I accepted (my own challenge). Fuck you, me! I’d show you (me) who’s boss (you/me). (Me.)

The key thing to establish before completing a challenge like this is setting what the parameters are. The most obvious thing to start with was to define exactly what I meant by a “horror film”. I did what any rational person would do and Googled it, taking the Wikipedia entry as 100% irrefutable evidence.

Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears…

…Horror films often deal with the viewer’s nightmares, hidden fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown.

Seems quite broad, doesn’t it? In the end, that turned out to be quite a helpful thing. As anybody who has listened to any of our ‘triple bill’ podcasts knows, I’m not too reliable when it comes to sticking within the boundaries of a particular topic. A little wriggle room meant, in theory, I could stretch from classic 50’s sci-fi and psychological thrillers, to Hammer Horror and good old fashioned ghoulish monster movies, should the need present itself. TV shows (The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and so on) or short movies would most definitely not be applicable. By film, I mean a feature film (that is, over 2400 seconds (or 40 minutes) in length).

The only other parameter left to establish was what did I constitute as “one per day”. Rather straight forward, perhaps, but what if I watched half a film on a Monday, fell asleep, and never went back to finish it? I decided that would not count. It had to be watched in its entirety that day for it to count. A couple of times due to various issues (such as internet cutting out in the middle of streaming a film on Netflix and not coming back on that day) a film had to be abandoned. If that was the case, it broke rule number 2 and was therefore not allowed.

I didn’t do this project for some sort of self enlightenment. I didn’t do it as a social experiment, or to make some kind of commentary on the film industry or film criticism either. I am simply an idiot with too much time on his hands who happens to have ready access to a film blog. Plus, it was kind of fun.

Below, I’m going to list the weeks through October and name each horror film that I watched per day. I’ll pick out one film to talk about. Are you ready? Let’s begin.


Week 1: Wednesday 1 – Sunday 5 October 2014

Wednesday – Cannibal (2014), The Masque of the Red Death (1964); Thursday – A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); Friday – The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960); Saturday – Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961); Sunday – WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)

witchfinder generalThis was not my first watch of Michael Reeves’ horror. Tragically dying from an accidental barbiturate overdose at the age of 25, this would be his fourth and final movie. It details an episode in the life of the infamous Witch Finder Generall, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) in the 17th century. Barbarically torturing women he denounces as witches, the film was originally heavily censored and notorious amongst horror fans. Ian Ogilvy plays a young Roundhead whose fiancée is taken and accused by Hopkins. Even watching this film a second time, knowing what is coming, it doesn’t make it any less brutal and horrific. If ever an ending to a horror film could be described as chilling, then it’s the final thud, thud, thud of this classic folk horror. And it’s impossible to let a review slip by without mentioning what a true genius Vincent Price was.


Week 2: Monday 6 – Sunday 12 October 2014

Monday – The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971); Tuesday – The Fly (1958); Wednesday – THE FLY (1986), The House of Usher (1960); Thursday – Madhouse (1974); Friday – Premature Burial (1962), The Wasp Woman (1959); Saturday – Black Sunday (1960), Night of the Blood Beast (1958); Sunday – This Island Earth (1955)the fly

As you can see from the above, I watched the fun and disturbing original film version of The Fly on the Tuesday of this week. It was enjoyable, fun and just a little bit twisted. However, immediately after it is David Cronenberg’s 1980’s Promethean body-horror retelling of this science fiction classic and it just blew the original out of the water. Or rather, as it happens, blew it out of the telepod. Starring Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a research scientist innocently working hard to invent a device that can instantaneously teleport an object from one pod to another, he accidentally splices his DNA with that of a humble fly. Thus begins 90 minutes of some of the most gruesome and memorable special effects in horror cinema history. An intelligent, well paced and horrifying sci-fi movie, it sits just one tier below the similar all time greats such as Alien and The Thing.


Week 3: Monday 13 – Sunday 19 October 2014

Monday – Tales from the Crypt (1972); Tuesday – Vampyr (1932); Wednesday – The Thing from Another World (1951); Thursday – Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), The Ghoul (1933), The Bat (1959), ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1980); Friday – City of the Living Dead (1980), King of the Zombies (1941); Saturday – The Silence of the Lambs (1991); Sunday – Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

zfeZombie, Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, whichever of the 34 titles listed on IMDb that you may know it by, Lucio Fulci and Elisa Briganti’s exotic living dead film is one of the finest movies to ever grace the zombie sub-genre. It ticks every box and then draws a few extra boxes underneath with a Sharpe and ticks those too. Whoever knew that what they really wanted from a zombie movie was to see one of the undead wrestling with a shark underwater? Certainly not me until I witnessed it. Since then, I have rated every other zombie film by how many shark-biting-zombies it has in it. Suffice to say, it’s never been topped.


Week 4: Monday 20 – Sunday 26 October 2014

Monday – FRIGHT NIGHT (1985); Tuesday – Dracula (1958); Wednesday – The Intruder (1962); Thursday – House (1986); Friday – The House of the Devil (2009); Saturday – Black Sabbath (1963), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985); Sunday – Creepshow (1982), Vault of Horror (1973), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)fright night

What a week this was! I could’ve chosen virtually any of them to talk about. Of all the films listed above featuring iconic vampires, this typical 80s comedy-horror about a teenager who believes his new neighbour is a vampire was the clear standout. I’d seen the 2011 remake before and found it be enjoyable (perhaps surprisingly so) but as one might expect, the original is best. Director Tom Holland would go on to find further success later in the decade with his most famous movie Child’s Play, but I honestly don’t think I had as much fun with any new discoveries this week than I had with Fright Night.


Week 5: Monday 27 – Thursday 30 October 2014

Monday – Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970); Tuesday – THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957); Wednesday – Island of Death (1976), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); Thursday – Ils (Them) (2006), It Came From Outer Space (1953)

curse of frankensteinThis has not been my favourite week. In fact, you might say it has been horrorble (hey, hey, see what I did there??) thanks mainly to two depressingly crap 70’s exploitation films. However, one of those other movies has more than made up for that  on its own. This Hammer Horror film, the first to unite long time friends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (and the studios first colour movie) was a real gem. A frankly quite astounding financial success for the British film industry at the time, the movie took as much as possible from Mary Shelley’s original novel, added its own new-wave horror flavour and tried as carefully as possible not to infringe on any Universal Studios rights. Unrecognisable as being anything at all to do with the James Whale / Boris Karloff classic (because, well it isn’t), it’s uniquely identifiable with two genuinely impressive performances elevating a film from ‘decent’ to ‘immensely entertaining’ virtually by themselves.


I guess all that leaves is today, Halloween! Should I make it home alive, then tonight I will be watching another horror movie to complete my self imposed challenge. If I’ve learnt anything from this past month of watching horror film after horror film, then it’s been:

  1. I am now a fully paid up member of the Roger Corman fan club
  2. Mario Bava just does not do anything for me
  3. No matter how good some horror films are these days, you just cannot beat the classics

What will you be watching tonight?