Few actors have had an impact on so many generations in the way that Christopher Lee did. The tall, dark and enigmatic actor’s deep baritone voice meant that he sounded as iconic as he looked and he had a career which saw him enter the Guinness record books for the actor with the most screen performances.
Born on the 27 May 1922, Lee started his career after World War II in 1947, with a role in Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors but he first came to prominence in the late 1950s with the Hammer horror films where he took on a selection of wonderfully macabre roles. It was his turn as Count Dracula in 1957’s Dracula (also known as Horror Of Dracula) which shot him to stardom. It would go on to be his signature role and he would portray the Prince Of Darkness numerous times on screen over the years. Lee became an iconic horror fixture and he would go on to star opposite his good friend Peter Cushing in 22 films.
1959’s The Mummy takes one of horror’s most enduring characters and adds two of the genre’s most iconic stars to deliver a film that still holds up fifty years on. Director Terence Fisher may not be a great stylist, but he knows how to build tension and use production design to its upmost, while The Mummy’s musical score adds a flavour of Egyptian mysticism.
Lee and Cushing lead the cast in Terence Fisher’s 1959 horror, The Mummy. It’s a classy and luscious looking film that uses Universal’s Mummy movies for inspiration, while giving it that unmistakeable Hammer feel.
The Mummy isn’t scary by today’s standards, but it is atmospheric. In a way, The Mummy is a precursor to James Cameron’s Terminator – he can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be stopped. Lee adds a sense of character to his shuffling creature. He’s helped by flashbacks that give him motivation and the opportunity to show his face. Stepping into Boris Karloff’s bandages is a tough job, but Lee manages to do it. Meanwhile, Cushing is as charming as ever, adding some derring-do to his bookish archaeologist.
Hammer’s screen adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles (also in 1959)is glorious production which is a faithful adaptation of Doyle’s tale with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell starring as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Lee takes on a sterling supporting role as Henry Baskerville, the last in a family line haunted (and hunted) by the demonic dog of the title.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles is Arthur Conan Doyle’s most supernatural tinged Holmes story and it was the perfect material for Hammer to take on. Cushing makes a perfect Sherlock Holmes, bringing the right about of narcissism and glee to the role of Doyle’s legendary detective. Morell gives Watson a strength that the character never had when he was portrayed by Nigel Bruce, while Lee makes sure that his supporting role isn’t over shadowed by the leads.
Gene Martin’s Horror Express plays-out like the winning combination of Murder On The Orient Express as well as The Thing. The 1972 Spanish/UK production sees Lee‘s anthropologist discovering a mysterious creature frozen within a cave in Manchuria. En route to England on the Trans-Siberian Express, the creature (which is actually an alien) thaws-out and starts killing passengers. Lee, assisted by Peter Cushing attempts to stop it.
Called Pánico en el Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian) in Spain, Horror Express is a well executed slice of genre cinema, with great tension. Horror icons Cushing and Lee are a winning pair and they help add some class to proceedings. The film also features a rather sumptuous score from composer John Cacavas.
Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror, The Wicker Man is eerily disturbing on many levels and equally unclassifiable.The 1973 film sees Edward Woodward excel as the uptight Christian policeman searching for a missing child on the remote island of Summerisle. What he discovers is a startling look at an unexpected pagan culture. Lee adds additional class and creepiness as Lord Summerisle, the island’s mysterious patriarch.
EMI executives didn’t know what to do with The Wicker Man, they cut it down and and released it in the UK as the B picture on a double bill with Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.
The rest of the 1970s saw Lee star in a slew of iconic films including the James Bond adventure The Man With The Golden Gun (he was Bond creator Ian Fleming’s cousin) and Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeer films. He also starred in the epic disaster movie Airport ’77 and took on a role in Steven Spielberg’s ill-fated WWII comedy 1941 in 1979.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were something of a fallow period for the actor, although he never stopped working but the early 2000’s saw him hit new career heights by starring in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. He went on to become a regular fixture in the films of Tim Burton (a Hammer aficionado).
Lee continued to work, returning to the role of Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, while he also recorded several heavy metal albums. He may have slowed down but he continued to take in a variety of roles up until last year.
Christopher Lee was an actor who made even the smallest role memorable, a larger than life actor who brought a multitude of iconic characters to the screen. From Dracula to Rasputin, Scaramanga to Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes to Count Dooku, Lee thrilled and entertained audiences for decades. He was a true screen great and it might just be that from today onwards, the silver screen might shine a little dimmer.
Christopher Lee died on 7 June 2015 from respiratory problems and heart failure. He was 93 years old.