Because the Future is Fun

RIP Sir Christopher Lee: 1922 – 2015

Christopher Lee

It’s a funny old game, this writing lark. For the most part, those of us who put our thoughts to paper keyboard do so largely for our own amusement, but while it’s good for our delicate egos to imagine that someone else out there is interested in what we have to say, there is often something deeper at work. It’s certainly safe to say that any articles you may have enjoyed under the DragonDark banner over the last few years haven’t been written because the author wanted to share their thoughts – it’s frequently because the scribe felt they needed to, lest they go completely potty.

You’ll have to excuse the uncharacteristically personal flavor to this introduction, but this necessity of communication goes double when we pen an obituary here on the site. We’re not The Guardian (for a start we have an effective spell-checker), which means that if we’re to mark the passing of a public figure it needs to be one that has cast illumination over the genre that we all love. The worlds of cinema and literature have lost countless icons over our lifetime, but it’s the absence of those that touched and changed our lives through the medium of their work that we feel most keenly.

The penning of such a tribute is usually a sad and somber occasion, marked by a palpable sense of melancholy that future generations will be denied further works from these paragons of pop culture. An undeniable bout of despondency certainly swept over your humble narrator when he heard the news that the legendary Sir Christopher Lee had passed away last weekend, despite the stately performer reaching an impressive 93 years young. In these eyes the finest thesp of his, and indeed any, generation, Lee was something of a personal hero and creative inspiration. As the time came to write an obituary, however, the tone took a turn; Lee’s was a life to celebrate, not a death to mourn.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London in 1922, the son of a British army officer and Edwardian beauty of Italian descent. With his parents separating when he was just four years old, Lee spent many of his formative years in Switzerland before returning to the Capital. Lee’s mother re-married, but he endured a strained relationship with his stepfather; a man who in turn was plagued by perilous financial predicaments. As a result, Lee’s teenage years were spent bouncing around a number of private schools throughout Europe (one of which was Summer Fields Prep in Oxford, which saw Lee study alongside Patrick Macnee) as a difficulty with mathematics meant that Lee never managed to obtain a scholarship with any elite educational establishment, despite his ferocious intellect. These formative experiences would prove useful in his later vocation, however, with Lee becoming multi-lingual at an early age; he was fluent in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish, in addition to enjoying a firm grasp of Latin, Swedish, Russian and Greek.

Military service defined the early part of Lee’s life, as he followed in father’s footsteps and enlisted to fight for the Finnish army in WW2. Lee remained with the armed forces until 1946, and his life would presumably have taken a very different turn had a stint in the RAF not uncovered a failure of his optic nerve – a desolate and despondent Lee was told in 1940 that his flawed eyesight meant he would never fly an aeroplane again. This didn’t mean that Lee saw a lack of action however, instead experiencing a globe-trotting run in the armed forces. A popular story doing the rounds online as we speak details how Lee explained to Peter Jackson that he was wholly familiar with the sound of a man being stabbed in the back (presumably a result of his time spent with a Gurkha infantry unit during the Battle of Monte Cassino), while he even spent a period hunting Nazi war criminals – though he held no truck with being described as a spy, explaining that “I’d have been spotted in five seconds. Yes, I was in intelligence, but that covered a multitude of things.”

Returning to London and at a loss as to what to do with himself in peacetime, Lee’s cousin suggested he turn his hand to acting full-time – a suggestion that he found agreeable. Sadly many short-sighted casting directors disagreed, overlooking his obvious handsomeness and thespian abilities in favour of dismissing his physical frame, towering at over 6’4, as too intimidating for the romantic male lead parts so prevalent at the time. Understandably this only fired Lee up (“That’s a quite fatuous remark to make”, he would later state, adding that “it’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano”). Lee eventually signed a contract with the Rank Organisation (a studio that a whole generation will associate with its gong-clattering introductory sting), making his film debut with future Bond helmer Terence Young’s romantic fantasy Corridor of Mirrors. Many small and supporting roles followed, including parts in recognisable properties such as Hamlet and Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., but it wasn’t until 1957 that the path of Lee’s career was irrevocably altered.

We refer, of course, to his debut project with the then-fledgling Hammer Studios; The Curse of Frankenstein. The movie was initially planned as a micro-budget black-and-white schlocker entitled Frankenstein and the Monster – with a screenplay from American producer Milton Subotsky, who would later go on to form rival house of horror Amicus Studios. In what can only be regarded as one of the finest decisions made by the entertainment industry, Hammer changed tack and opted to jettison the arch camp and play up the Gothic chills, bringing in the men that would soon become regarded as the studio’s A-team. Writer Jimmy Sangster re-crafted the script and director Terence Fisher, a veteran of Hammer’s noir output earlier in the decade, brought it to the screen aided by a lush and lurid colour palette. Fisher’s unapologetic use of gore shocked, thrilled and horrified audiences in equal measure, but it was the casting that cemented the flick in the minds of fright-fans forever more; the legendary Peter Cushing portrayed the nefarious Baron Frankenstein for the first time, while the still largely-unknown Lee, buried under layers of prosthetics, brought his wretched creation to second life.

The Curse of Frankenstein changed the face of horror cinema in the 1950s, eschewing the teenage kicks of American drive-in gimmickfests popularized by William Castle in favour of in-your-face splatter. Roger Corman was clearly paying attention, soon teaming with Vincent Price for a sequence of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, but Hammer had their own formula – bright and distinctive colour photography, highlighting moody and elaborate sets. All that was missing was lashings of sex appeal, which would be rectified in 1958 with Lee’s most famous character – Count Dracula.

Lee famously grew frustrated by his association with the infamous neck-nibbling nuisance, sitting out the first sequel (the Cushing-led Brides of Dracula), and playing the part mute aside from the occasional hiss in 1965’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (a well-regarded entry that provided Hammer’s premier scream queen glamourpuss Barbara Shelley with arguably her finest role). Reports vary as to why this was – Lee stated that he refused to speak the dialogue he was provided with as it was terrible, while Sangster retaliated with a suggestion that the Count was never supposed to speak in the movie. Lee did go on record as claiming that he only reprised the role on six further occasions under duress.

The process went like this – the telephone would ring and my agent would say, “Jimmy Carreras (the President of Hammer Films) has been on the phone, they’ve got another Dracula for you.” And I would say, “Forget it! I don’t want to do another one.” I’d get a call from Jimmy Carreras, in a state of hysteria. “What’s all this about?!” “Jim, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t have to do it.” “No, you have to do it!” And I said, “Why?” He replied, “Because I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part. Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!” Emotional blackmail. That’s the only reason I did them.

Regardless, there is no denying that Lee’s debonair interpretation of the Count, oozing class and an animal magnetism completely at odds with Stoker’s grotesque description of literature’s greatest monster, set a new standard. This was a Dracula that defied the X certificate slapped upon the picture by the censors (and the sniffy notices of critics, with the Daily Telegraph famously exclaiming that “the X certificate is too good for Dracula … there should be a new certificate – S for Sadistic, or D for Disturbing”). There’s no doubt that Lee’s bloodsucker was a considerably messier eater than his forebears, with audiences never having been exposed to dripping, bloody fangs on-screen before (perhaps providing the title character with a tippy cup for his meals would have placated the squeamish?), but this was a Dracula marketed toward female audiences as much as blood-hungry gorehounds, proudly trumpeting Christopher Lee as a matinee idol.

Lee will always be associated Hammer Horror pictures and Peter Cushing, with good reason. He took the role of the high priest Kharis in The Mummy in 1959, becoming only the second actor – after the legendary Lon Chaney Jnr – to portray the unholy trinity of Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula and The Mummy. The two also appeared together in the likes of She, the horror-tinged Hammerisation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and DragonDark’s personal favourite The Gorgon, whilst Lee also headlined success stories such as Rasputin the Mad Monk, and the took the lead in the Fu Manchu franchise. Imagine trying to get that yellowface make-up past the drawing board in the age of Twitter. Hammer even occasionally let Lee play the good guy, taking the role of the heroic Duc de Richleau in the celebrated Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out – for which Lee allegedly had to convince the financial backers to retain the title, as they were adamant that people would be expecting a western.

Despite this, to describe Lee as a ‘Hammer actor’, or even a ‘horror actor’, would be doing a disservice to an exemplary performer and professional; Lee worked steadily throughout the 1960s and 1970s, albeit predominantly within the horror genre. He teamed with Cushing and Price to form a formidable scream team on a number of pictures, arguably the most famous of which was SF-horror Scream and Scream Again, while he also fraternised with Hammer’s enemy in a number of Amicus productions, most notably the Jekyll-and-Hyde emulation I, Monster and the classic portmanteau The House That Dripped Blood. Other honourable mentions from Lee’s CV that complete a highlight reel of horror classics from the golden age of British spine-tinglers include The Creeping Flesh, Horror Express and of course, The Wicker Man – though Lee would admonish us for lumping these titles together. He often waxed lyrical about his opportunity to portray Lord Summerisle and remained fiercely proud of the film, frequently declaring it the finest flick that he starred in.

I never saw it as a horror movie. Some journalists say it’s the Citizen Kane of horror movies, but Anthony Shaffer who wrote it, Robin Hardy who directed it and those of us who were in it didn’t think that was the right word to use … it’s a remarkable film, brilliantly written, and the part was written for me personally, which doesn’t happen very often.

Lee also worked outside of the horror genre throughout this period, with varying levels of success. After playing Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s take on the Hound he portrayed the great detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (a role he would reprise in a pair of 90s TV movies), in addition to the elder Holmes brother, Mycroft, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Villainous duties in the so-bad-it’s-just-bloody-awful TV movie sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon are best forgotten, but younger audiences were introduced to Lee’s velvet tones in Disney’s Return from Witch Mountain, and he enjoyed further mainstream recognition after taking on The Three Musketeers as Comte de Rocheford.

1974 saw the release of Lee’s most famous fang-free performance – the sharp-shooting Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, which finally saw Lee take on Bond some 22 years after being linked with the title role of Dr. No. Lee’s performance in the movie is the stuff of legend, and it’s fair to say that he single-handedly elevates a thoroughly flat screenplay to heights that few actors could match. It’s just a shame that the role came his way at this point – while Lee would have made an equally compelling Hugo Drax or Karl Stromberg if Eon had kept their powder dry for a couple more years, he could have really flourished as Emilio Largo in Thunderball.  

With horror – and cinema – changing tack somewhat in the 1980s, the decade was a comparatively fallow one. Lee did get to exercise his musical chops by performing a Richard O’Brien-penned song-and-dance number in the bizarre Return of Captain Invincible, but it’s a cruel twist of fate that the most recognisable releases on his CV from the era are sub-standard sequels; Return of the Musketeers and the risible Howling II. Thankfully the founding father of that particularly hairy franchise helped resuscitate Lee’s career in 1991 when Joe Dante, an unashamed aficionado of vintage horror movies, cast him as Dr. Catheter in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Lee is rumoured to have apologised to Dante on-set for appearing in the disastrous full moon follow-up to his director’s breakthrough hit, and he clearly had a whale of a time sending up his established persona in the live-action cartoon.  Opinions may be split on the qualities of Gremlins 2 (it’s great, just for the record), but there can be no denying the impact of Lee’s performance.

Alas, it would perhaps be generous to describe the 1990s as a golden age for Christopher Lee – after all, Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow is a stain on any career that no performance detergent could lift. There were occasional highlights though, most notably the inspired casting of Lee as the voice of Death in animated adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (once again a role he would later reprise, this time in 2008’s live-action interpretation of The Colour of Magic). It was toward the close of the decade, however, upon joining Tim Burton’s troupe in Hammer tribute Sleepy Hollow, that Lee really re-introduced himself to the mainstream. The following decade was his most notable since the 70s, as he took on prominent roles in the two most dominant franchises of the era, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Lee was a lifelong devotee to the works of Tolkien, so it seems fitting that his final screen appearance at the time of his passing was his reprisal of the part of Saruman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Meanwhile, a generation of millenials are left with the image of an Octogenarian sith lord swinging a lightsaber with more effortless badassery than a thousand Skywalker’s could dream of, while Lee’s retirement funds were topped up by further Burton collaborations such as Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, working with Martin Scorsese in Hugo, and small roles in forgettable but enjoyable multiplex fodder such as The Resident and Season of the Witch. Lee even found time to return to Robin Hardy’s world of ritualistic terror with a small role in The Wicker Tree. Knighted in 2009, Sir Christopher Lee had achieved a well-earned status as a national treasure and had almost single-handedly made horror cinema classy.

Of course, this is all disregarding Lee’s other career that the mainstream media seem to have unearthed since his passing; that of a Heavy Metal icon. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine fans of dark music finding solace in the works of Lee – especially seeing as he had contributed to the soundtracks of many of his movies – and he began his recording career with orchestral Italians Rhapsody of Fire. Genre credentials were cemented by replacing Orson Welles on a voiceover gig with shirtless warriors of metal Manowar, and his first full-length album followed in 2010.

Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross is an astonishing work, a symphonic concept album packed with guest musicians and vocalists that weaves the story of Charles the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Acting simultaneously as an album, history lesson and SFX-laden audiobook it’s an experience that DragonDark recommends everybody undertakes at least once – alongside its sequel, 2013’s Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. The two recordings are similar, but the latter includes less spoken word material and more bona fide singing from Lee’s honeyed baritone (in addition to louder screaming guitars), but the real warbling comes on a number of EPs. Last year’s Metal Knight is the pick of the bunch, featuring metallic covers of I, Don Quixote, The Impossible Dream, The Toreador March and – most notably – My Way. All are glorious, and if you can manage to get through the entirety of the latter without a serious lump in your throat you’re made of sterner stuff than us. Best of all, the fun doesn’t stop here – for some years now, winters have seen DragonDark Towers jingling bells and decking halls to the sounds of A Heavy Metal Christmas and A Heavy Metal Christmas Too. All of these covers are also available on the Revelation album, but copies of that bad boy are hard to find (and have undoubtedly skyrocketed in asking price over the last few days). Evidently, with the exception of making a Police Academy sequel watchable, there was literally nothing that Sir Christopher Lee could not do.

Perhaps Lee turned his attentions to music having outlived most of his acting contemporaries, a fact that he was acutely aware of – never more so than in this touching quote from 2009:

I sometimes think the saddest thing in my life is that there is nobody alive today with whom I can have a “remember when?” conversation. The last one died with Peter Cushing. We used to meet up and talk like characters out of a cartoon strip. I was Sylvester the Cat and he was Spike the Bulldog. We used to dissolve into gales of laughter. He was a wonderful man and a dear friend. I loved him very much.

With this in mind, it’s undeniably good news for movie enthusiasts at the pearly gates that Cushing and Lee are re-united. Whilst Lee, unlike his most famous character, will not be rising from the grave, he leaves behind a formidable body of work that has touched more lives than he could ever have imagined after being written off as “too tall to act” some seven decades ago. Rest in peace, Sir Christopher Lee. Keeper for the faith, defender of the realm and personal inspiration to so many students of cinema, we will never see your like again – and neither would we wish to. A life like yours comes around but once.

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