Christopher Lee: British Cinema’s “Prince of Darkness”

LEE, CHRISTOPHER 2He was the last man standing from the realm of classic monster movie stars. Following in the footsteps of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, he gave new life–or, perhaps, “unlife”–to some of their most iconic roles, and alongside frequent co-star Peter Cushing he helped launch a new, bloodier era in horror cinema in the late 1950s. In the 21st century, he brought his air of sinister charm to two of the most successful sci-fi/fantasy film franchises of all time. And while his 60-plus-year career covered more then just these genres, it’s for his work in them that Christopher Lee–who passed away earlier this week at age 93–certainly will best be remembered.

He was born in central London’s Belgravia neighborhood in May of 1922, the son of a British army officer and a contessa descended from Italian nobility. Lee moved to Switzerland with his mother as a boy when his parents separated and was educated both there and, later, back in England when she re-married (to the uncle of James Bond author Ian Fleming). Leaving school at 17 to work and help support his family following his stepfather’s bankruptcy, Lee enlisted in the Royal Air Force after the start of World War II in 1941 and was sent to southern Africa for training. Problems with his eyes kept him from becoming a pilot, however, and he spent the final years of the conflict in intelligence work for the Special Air Service, the nature of which he declined to speak about. “I was attached to the SAS from time to time,” he later stated, “but we are forbidden–former, present, or future–to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”

Following the war’s end, a relative suggested that the idle Lee try his hand at dramatics. An audition for the J. Arthur Rank film studio led to a contract and a decade’s worth of minor or unbilled roles, starting with a one-line appearance in 1947’s Corridor of Mirrors. He was an uncredited spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning adaptation of  Hamlet (1948), and could also be seen in Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952), and, as painter Georges Seurat, in Moulin Rouge (also ’52). Another of his early adventure roles, in 1955’s The Warriors, found the young actor in a swordfight with a slightly tipsy Errol Flynn that left Lee with a permanent injury to his hand.

CURSE OF FRANKENSTEINThe career boost that Christopher needed came from a very unlikely source. In the mid-1950s England’s Hammer Films, who had found success with the sci-fi thriller The Quatermass Xperiment, decided to branch into the classic horror stories made famous by Universal Pictures two decades earlier, but now livened up with more blood and color photography. Their first such effort, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, featured Peter Cushing as the titular mad scientist and the 6’5″ Lee as his scarred, ghost-white creation. While the two actors had both appeared in Hamlet and other films, this was the first of nearly 20 co-starring turns for the pair. Lee recounted his first on-the-set meeting with Cushing in his autobiography: storming into the dressing room upon learning that his “breakthrough role” was dialogue-free, he yelled “I haven’t got any lines!,” to which Cushing retorted, “You’re lucky; I’ve read the script.”

Reminiscing years later about his frequent collaborator, Lee once said, “I don’t want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line..and then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”

HORROR OF DRACULA 2The box office success of The Curse of Frankenstein led Hammer to reteam Lee and Cushing in the following year’s Horror of Dracula, with Lee as the sanguine count as Cushing as vampire hunter Van Helsing. Borrowing elements from both the Bram Stoker novel and Universal’s 1931 chiller, Hammer’s scarlet-drenched shocker set box office records in its native U.K. as well as North America, and Christopher’s lusty portrayal of Dracula was seen as a virile updating of the stagey and stylized Bela Lugosi performance.

The duo and their studio took a (slight) detour from fright in 1959 with a filming of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Cushing as legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, Andre Morell as Dr. Watson, and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, whose family is haunted by the ghostly canine of the title. It was back to monsters that same year when Christopher got all wrapped up in his work (sorry) as Kharis in The Mummy. More horror roles followed for Lee in such scare fare as The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Hands of Orlac, both in 1960; 1962’s The Gorgon, where the mythological Greek figure was turning people to stone; the Amicus Films anthology Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Hammer’s The Skull in 1965.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACEHe was on the side of law and order when he got the chance to play Sherlock Holmes in a 1963 West German-made whodunit, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace. In 1965 he returned to the dark side with The Face of Fu Manchu, the first of five popular–if not politically correct–thrillers he would make as the ruthless Asian criminal mastermind. 1966’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk found Christopher donning robes and beard to play the crazed and charismatic “holy man” of pre-Revolutionary Russia.

1966 also saw him reprise his role of the king of the vampires for Dracula: Prince of Darkness. “I didn’t speak in that picture,” Lee once recalled. “The reason was very simple: I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’re very much mistaken.” Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster disputed this story, saying that he figured vampires wouldn’t have much to say and didn’t write dialogue. Whatever the reason, Lee’s lack of speech didn’t keep audiences away, and from 1968 to 1973 he would play the count for Hammer in five more chillers: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, the contemporary-set Dracula A.D. 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Whether he was drowned in rushing waters, impaled on a cross or set ablaze by lightning, you just couldn’t keep a good vampire down, it seems. In between Hammer projects he also starred in Jess Franco’s 1970 thriller Count Dracula, a Spanish production that stayed somewhat more faithful to Stoker’s book.

WICKER MAN, THE 1973Lee added to his Baker Street credentials in playing Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother, in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and returned to Shakespeare later that year by co-starring with Charlton Heston, Jason Robards and Richard Chamberlain in Julius Caesar. Fright fans weren’t disappointed, though, as the actor could be seen in The Oblong Box (1969), The Creeping Flesh (1972) and Horror Express (also ’72), along with a truly terrifying turn as Lord Summerisle in the bizarre shocker The Wicker Man (1973).

MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUNHe donned an eyepatch to play the scheming Rochefort in 1973’s lively The Three Musketeers and its ’74 follow-up The Four Musketeers (and even appeared in 1989’s The Return of the Musketeers, despite having been “killed” in a duel with d’Artagnan in the previous installment). 1974 also saw Lee finally enter the screen world of his stepcousin Ian Fleming (who had wanted him to play Dr. No back in 1962) when he was cast as master assassin Sacramanga, also known as The Man with the Golden Gun, and attempted to eliminate Roger Moore’s 007. Among his other key ’70s efforts included the all-star disaster actioner Airport ’77 (1977, of course); Disney’s Return from Witch Mountain (1978); the Arabian-set saga Caravans, a U.S.-Iranian co-production (!);  and, as a German WWII officer, in Steven Spielberg’s monumental homefront comedy 1941 (1979). He was also making notable TV appearances at this time, from such dramas as The Avengers and Space: 1999 to the telefilms Poor Devil (as Lucifer, of course) and Once Upon a Spy, and even hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWSBy the 1980s Lee’s film career had stalled, as such titles as The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985) and Jocks (1986) would indicate, but his mere presence lent a sense of gravtias. He was a memorable supervillain–and even managed to belt out a couple of songs–in the 1983 superhero satire The Return of Captain Invincible, with Alan Arkin. Christopher appeared for the final time in a film with his Hammer co-star Peter Cushing, along with fellow terror titans John Carradine and Vincent Price, in the “old dark house” thriller House of the Long Shadows in ’83 as well. And he had a memorable self-spoofing turn in 1990 as the maniacal head of a genetics research lab in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

He returned to the role of Sherlock Holmes in a pair of early ’90s mysteries, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls, and played Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the nation of Pakistan, in 1998’s Jinnah. Little seen outside of southern Asia and the U.K., the biodrama won him global acclaim for his performance, and Lee himself called it “the most important film I made.”

Untitled-1As in the late ’50s, work in an unexpected genre–this time, science fiction and fantasy–would jumpstart Christopher’s popularity and introduce him to a new generation of fans at the start of the new century. He was cast as the villainous wizard Saruman in director Peter Jackson’s gargantuan film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its “prequel” novel, The Hobbit (Fun fact: Lee was the only cast member who had actually met Tolkien, and had been considered to play the heroic Gandalf years earlier). Lee went from Middle Earth to galaxies far, far away when he crossed lightsabers with the Jedi as evil Sith lord Count Dooku in two Star Wars prequels, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. And after playing the burgomaster in director Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999, he became a sort of “good luck charm” for the filmmaker, who cast him as Willy Wonka’s dentist father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the voice of the reverend in Corpse Bride (both 2005), followed by more voice work as the Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland (2010), and a cameo in Burton’s quirky take on TV’s Dark Shadows (2012).

Following a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 family film Hugo, Lee continued to work past his 90th birthday. His final screen role will be as the “boss of the universe” in the upcoming fantasy Angels in Notting Hill. The horror icon passed away in a London hospital on June 7, 2015, a few weeks after celebrating his 93rd birthday, from respiratory problems and heart failure. In looking back over his diverse and prolific body of work, he once said, “One day, I hope somebody will sum up my career thus: ‘He was different.’ That would satisfy me.” Well, Christopher Lee may have indeed been different, but the aristocratic grace and sophisticated menace he brought to more than 200 motion pictures never wavered.