Hammer Profile: Christopher Lee

christopher_leeHe’s starred in three of cinema’s biggest, most beloved franchises – Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings and James Bond. Now aged 91, the last 15 years have seen him become a regular for Tim Burton and even record a couple of heavy metal albums. But for better (Dracula) or for worse (The Terror Of The Tongs, anyone?), Sir Christopher Lee will forever be associated with Hammer horror.

Born in 1922, in upmarket Belgravia, London, he served with the Royal Air Force in World War Two before spending a decade in bit parts in minor movies. Initially, he was bizarrely deemed “too tall” to be an actor. But his imposing six-foot-odd build, brooding looks and rich, distinctive voice were soon to become major assets.

Lee’s wildly successful Hammer years – 1957-1976 – saw him become a national treasure and an international star. He memorably featured in horror films for rival studio Amicus, and in a number of European productions, from the great (Horror Express, alongside his dear, lifelong friend Peter Cushing) to the grubby (the Marquis de Sade-inspired sleaze-fest Eugenie: The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion).

But his best work in this period was for Hammer. He bought a deadly eroticism to Count Dracula and a wordless, unnerving combination of fury and pity to Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy. He could be intellectually fiendish and heroic in The Devil Rides Out, or he could embody the smiling face of evil in To The Devil A Daughter.

So, here’s our top ten Christopher Lee Hammer films. Well, it’s actually a top nine, but there’s one other classic we really couldn’t leave out…

Top Ten

christopher-lee-dracula.jpg

1. Dracula (1958)

If TheCurse Of Frankenstein was Hammer’s dry run, then Dracula ramped up its key elements – lush colour, grim fairy-tale atmospherics, gore, the dream team of Lee and Peter Cushing – and added a liberal dose of sex (“The terrifying lover who died – yet lived!” screamed the poster’s tagline). Horror movies were never quite the same again. Director Terence Fisher’s loose but fast-paced retelling of Bram Stoker’s novel presents a surprisingly complex battle of good and evil (Cushing’s clinical, zealous Van Helsing sometimes feels more monstrous than his undead nemesis), and Lee nails the chilling ambiguities with great skill as he glides from aristocratic charm, erotic magnetism and animalistic ferocity in a heartbeat.

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2. The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Dennis Wheatley – the Ian Fleming of the occult novel – is a little unfashionable now, but considering how prolific he was and that he was a close pal of Lee’s it’s surprising Hammer only adapted two of his books. The first – and vastly superior of the pair – gave Lee the rare chance to play a good guy: the high-minded, morally righteous Duc de Richleau, who takes on a band of devil-worshippers led by Mocata, played by one-time Blofeld, Charles Gray, who gets the film’s best scene. Trying to ensnare a victim in her own comfy drawing room, he menacingly says as he gets up to leave: “I shall not be back… but something will.” Barnstorming from start to finish.

frankenstein

3. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

This is where it all began. After years of cheap B-movies (and a couple of excellent black-and-white Quatermass sci-fi thrillers), Hammer turned up the colour and established the company’s house style in one fell swoop. And audiences, who were more accustomed to the creaky monochrome Universal horrors of the 30s and 40s, lapped it up. It’s got a classic source in Mary Shelley’s novel, Hammer’s best director (Fisher) and, for the first time, it brought Lee and Cushing together. Not that you recognise Lee at first, encased in his gruesome, patchwork-skin make-up. But he still brings both rage and pathos to the role of the creature who never asked to be born.

gorgom

4. The Gorgon (1964)

One unwritten rule of horror films, especially those made on a tight budget, is: never show the monster. This is sadly true of The Gorgon, about which Lee apparently quipped: “The only thing wrong with The Gorgon is the gorgon.” And her climactic appearance, complete with what are clearly toy plastic snakes bobbing about in her wig, is hilariously bad. Nevertheless, up until this point, this is one of Hammer’s most underrated gothic romances. Although relentlessly downbeat – the film’s as icy as the victims turned to stone by the Gorgon’s gaze – its unusual subject matter and atmospheric photography cast a strange, unsettling spell. And Lee gets to rock a splendid moustache.

hound

5. The Hound of The Baskervilles (1959)

“A sight to shatter the nerves!” ran the original US poster’s tagline above a picture of a snarling, blood-dripping werewolf-like dog. In reality, the titular beast was played by a cuddly Great Dane wearing a mask. But that’s the only daft thing about Hammer’s richly gothic take on the popular Sherlock Holmes mystery, starring Cushing as the master detective. And once again, Lee is more than his equal as Sir Henry Baskerville, a man haunted by his dysfunctional family’s centuries-old curse. As well as being a thrilling story, this is one of Hammer’s best-looking films; check out the almost experimental use of queasy red and green filters and the creepy ruined abbey at the tense finale.

mummy

6. The Mummy (1959)

The Mummy completed Hammer’s revisionist hat-trick of classical monster movies that began with Frankenstein and Dracula, and all the ingredients were firmly in place: Fisher, Lee, Cushing, stunning production design and a chilling, darkly seductive atmosphere. Although the weakest of the three, there’s much to enjoy, not least the lavish visuals – from Egyptian tombs to a rank swamp in the English countryside, all meticulously created in-house by Hammer’s studio boffins. Lee, wrapped from skull to toe in dirty bandages, is on top form as the vengeful Mummy and his performance is all in the eyes, the only visible part of his body: burning with hatred and yearning with forlorn romance.

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7. Taste of Fear (1961)

Ironically, just as Hammer was breaking the mould and making a fortune with its colour films, a black-and-white film appeared in 1960 that scared the bejesus out of anyone thinking about taking a shower. Psycho was a global sensation and, as opportunistic as ever, Hammer embarked on a short series of so-called “mini Hitchcocks” – twisty psychological thrillers that were shot in stark monochrome and set in the present day. Taste Of Fear is the first and best of the cycle, and centres on a young woman in a wheelchair whose supposedly dead father has an annoying habit of reappearing in odd places. Lee plays her doctor, and he shows a quieter, more subtle side of his range.

christopher-lee-as-rasputin

8. Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

Filmed back-to-back with Lee’s first Dracula sequel, Prince Of Darkness, Rasputin shares the same sets and much of the same main cast. But while Lee didn’t get to utter a single word in his second outing as the Count, he’s much more animated in this romp. He brings a wild-eyed intensity to the sham monk possessed with magical powers and considerable prowess with the ladies. Far from historically accurate, but Lee does get to showcase some fierce Russian dancing skills and a magnificent beard. To date, the only Hammer film to inspire a disco anthem by Boney M. (“People looked at him with terror and with fear / But to Moscow chicks, he was such a lovely dear.” Ahem.)

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9. To The Devil A Daughter (1976)

The end of an era. This Dennis Wheatley adaptation was Hammer’s last horror film until the company’s recent resurrection. The 70s weren’t so kind to Hammer, who found it hard to compete with the lavish horrors coming out of America. Why watch the umpteenth rehash of Dracula or Frankenstein when you could see a girl with a rotating head, spewing bile and masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist? This nasty, muddled occult chiller does feel like the final nail in the coffin, yet it’s worth watching for one reason: Lee. He is at his most frightening as a defrocked priest with an appalling bedside manner. “Margaret, you shall die now,” he says, gently grinning, as one of his victims perishes in blood-splattered satanic childbirth.

wicker-man

10. The Wicker Man (1973)

Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ! Ok, it’s not a Hammer production. But given that Lee himself says it’s his best film, and that Lord Summerisle is his finest role, it would seem wrong not to include it. Director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer were Hammer fans but wanted to make something more sophisticated, a film that would playfully (and terrifyingly) subvert a genre that, by the early 70s, was becoming predictable. The resulting film – was it a horror? A folk musical? A satire on organised religion? – bewildered its studio, which sought to bury it. But you can’t keep a masterpiece down and, 40 years on, it remains a genuine one-off – a cult film about a pagan cult, led by the charming, suave and deadly Lord Summerisle, who help an uptight Christian copper appreciate the true nature of sacrifice.

Trailers

Dracula

The Devil Rides Out

The Curse Of Frankenstein

The Gorgon

The Hound Of The Baskervilles

The Mummy

Taste Of Fear (US: Scream Of Fear)

Rasputin: The Mad Monk

To The Devil A Daughter

The Wicker Man

Additional

Christopher Lee rocks – kind of…

The official Hammer site – well worth a browse

LINKS:
Hammer Profile: Peter Cushing
Hammer Profile: Caroline Munro

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GrahamGraham is a freelance writer and editor based in London. He has written about film, TV, music and books. At the age of 10, he was allowed to stay up to watch Quatermass And The Pit on TV and has loved Hammer – and vintage horror – ever since. He is currently working on his debut novel.


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