Scarcely imaginable to believe that he has gone
It is undeniable that the passing of the great Sir Christopher Lee will mark the end of an incredible era that has helped shaped cinema as we know it.This most noble of performers has been with every one of us all of our lives, stalking our nightmares with his iconic presence, entrancing us with his wondrous eloquence and gracing the stage, the television and the big screen with a talent that has seen him truly come to epitomise the mantle of legendary.
Most people, myself included, will have been introduced to Lee with his outstanding work for Hammer Films. Late-night horror double-bills were my juvenile fix and by the time I was ten, I felt that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were my favourite uncles. And now, decades later, I still feel the same way... which is why his passing, although hardly a shock given his age of 93, is still a terrible blow. With a persona as indelible as Lee’s, and as powerful and magnetic as he had been right up until his last days, it is scarcely imaginable to believe that he has gone. You really think such people are immortal.
Which, of course, given the exhaustive, yet sublime legacy that he has left behind... he actually is.
He was there when Hammer really broke the mould of British horror and first smashed the international box office with The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and he was right there at the end when the studio was outclassed and left for dead by the ferocious new blood independents. But he had stayed strong and true all throughout their golden period, making his name synonymous with theirs.
Whether snarling, red-eyed and fanged as the most feral and aristocratic of Count Draculas, swathed in bloody bandages as the falsely maligned creation of Baron Frankenstein, or crashing through the French windows as the tragically resurrected and heartbroken mummy, Kharis, Christopher Lee brought majesty, intensity and sympathy to his many monsters. Fiendishly fun as Fu Manchu and radiantly mesmeric as Rasputin, he became a powerhouse for the studio, bringing in sex appeal and a sense of class.
Considering their resentment of blue-blooded gentry, having someone as suave and urbane as Lee in Hammer’s stable only seemed to weaponise their campaign. Justifiably hailed as the definitive Transylvanian Count, his sexually intense predator made women swoon and men tremble with fear. Even shorn of dialogue, as he so often was during his vampiric tenure (and mostly because he couldn’t bring himself to utter such risible lines as he has been given), Lee smouldered with that exotic and otherworldly aura. Even now, the first character that people associate with the versatile and prolific actor is always Dracula.
But these historic roles were just the tip of the iceberg, and mere shades of a remarkable man.
With a staggering grasp of languages, he worked extensively for foreign filmmakers, bringing his unique brand of aristocratic menace to bear for the likes of Mario Bava, Jess Franco and Antonio Margheriti, the ceaseless workaholic never shying away from even the crassest excesses of the genre that had made him a star. Then again, his turn as a sadomasochist from beyond the grave in Bava’s The Whip and The Body is eerily memorable. Indeed, his exotic appearance and intimidating height made him perfect to portray decadent noblemen with barbarism on their mind. Inevitably, this also led him to being somewhat typecast as the villain, although, given the opportunity, he could happily play the hero, as he would prove as the energetic occult saviour, the Duc de Richleau, in The Devil Rides Out, or as the stuffy academic-cum-alien-battler, Professor Sexton in Horror Express, alongside his pal, Peter Cushing.
The unusual and offbeat rape ‘n’ revenge Western, Hannie Caulder, benefitted enormously from his small role as a former Confederate gunsmith, adding a delightfully weird European frisson to a gritty character-driven drama, and another genre to his collection.
One of his most cherished roles, and the one that continually surprises and rewards, is that of the gregarious Lord Summerisle in the implacable classic of pagan sacrifice, The Wicker Man. Here, he was able to revel in a character that was indisputably likeable and yet wholly sinister at the same time, literally able to imbue a murderous cult-leader with reverence and empathy, and languishing comfortably in a kilt whilst crooning ballads of fertility. This was a far cry from the neck-nibbling lord of the undead, but then Lee was also a classically trained singer who clearly relished the chance to waggle his tonsils in such an insidiously intelligent genre catalyst. For many, this was his defining moment.
A definite man of action, he brought his splendid sword-fighting skills to the screen as the one-eyed villain Rochefort in Richard Lester’s hugely enjoyable opening doublet of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and then the much belated follow-on The Return of the Musketeers, tempering the arch-schemer’s nastiness with a wryly comical streak of weariness. He would take on Roger Moore’s 007, armed with bullion bullets and a third nipple in The Man With The Golden Gun. His take on Mycroft Holmes in Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes provides a brilliant touch of comic snobbery that revealed he didn’t take himself all that seriously.
He was even happy to send himself up with his vampiric U-boat Commander in Spielberg’s leviathan spoof 1941, and later as a cruel pantomime scientist in Gremlins II: The Next Batch. He certainly proved that he could have a good time even if eventual audiences might not, as evidenced by his daftly entertaining antics for Philippe Mora in The Return of Captain Invincible and then the absurdly fun Howling II. You could argue that Lee had reached a point in his career when he would take whatever work he was offered, but the simple and inescapable fact was that he just loved to perform. And if that meant lampooning his own regal and demonic image, then so be it.
In the twilight of his years, Lee was still eminently capable of bringing a level of class to the films of George Lucas and Peter Jackson. He was once again able to cut a duelling dash for the former as separatist Dark-sider, Count Dooku, in Attack of the Clones, even bestowing Revenge of the Sith with a simply priceless look of sheer astonishment when faced with a double lightsabre execution. As the renegade wizard, Saruman the White, for the latter, in the Rings Trilogy, he was understandably vexed when his major death scene was theatrically axed. But this was not coming from a diva’s lust for screen-time, it was from a devotee of Tolkien and someone who understood the importance of such classical closure. He was proved right, of course, when the bravura sequence was eventually reinstated for the extended cut. He would also provide frequent vocal support and enjoyable cameos for Tim Burton, a filmmaker totally connected to the history of Christopher Lee and utterly enamoured with, and respectful of his stature.
But Lee’s tastes were as eclectic as they were refined. He might have been a connoisseur of fine wines and classical art, and exceptionally well-read, but he embraced “symphonic metal” too. His contribution to such albums as Charlemagne and work with the band Rhapsody may have raised a few eyebrows, but serves as testimony to that undying hunger to perform, and to continually create. Lee wasn’t the best at reinventing himself – his appearance, voice and sheer aristocracy utterly refused to slough away – but he could lend so much wit, wisdom and integrity to a role that he rose above simple stereotyping to attain a pedestal all of his own. There was never a need to fix what wasn’t broken in the first place.
Over the years, his somewhat cold and authoritative, though instantly recognisable voice has also been used to narrate and to recite. To hear him read aloud the prose of Tolkien and Conan Doyle is a wonderful treat, his very diction and beautiful yet strangely brutal clarity quite mesmerising.
And yet, despite this rich, colourful and varied career, it is to the iconic pairing of himself and his dear old friend Peter Cushing to which we must return. Both actors would shine in their own right but, together, they were an inseparable hallmark of inordinate quality and consummate professionalism. No matter how wretched the screenplay, or how ridiculous the plot, they could each dig deep and provide all the gravitas and dignity to have us simply believe. And, together, they were unbeatable. Throughout the long history of their onscreen battles, rivalries and occasional team-ups, you could see the true affection they shared for their craft and for one another shining in their eyes. Reunited now at long last, we can only imagine the tales these two genre titans will swap.
But one thing is for certain... whatever lies beyond, it can only be a better place if Christopher Lee is there.
So long, Sir Chris... and thanks for the memories.
RIP Christopher Lee.
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