Christopher Lee (1922-2015) was a Renaissance Man, who, much like Vincent Price, was greater than the sum of his parts. Known primarily for his role of Count Dracula in Hammer Studios many film sequels, he played the part of the legendary vampire seven times for them and another two times for other studios, and his version of Dracula stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Lugosi’s in terms of popularity and influence.
Lee was born into an aristocratic family (his father was a decorated British military man and his mother was an Italian countess), and his early years were full of world travel, private schools, and eventually a classical education at Wellington College. After he graduated, he did more traveling and ended up in the military, eventually serving as an intelligence officer in World War II, and afterward, he helped round up Nazi war criminals. Upon mustering out of the RAF, he was at a loss with what to do with himself. After a storied career in the military, he didn’t think he could take a job as a clerk or sitting at a desk. His cousin, the Italian ambassador to Britain, urged him to take up acting.
He was initially told that his height (6’ 4”) wouldn’t allow him to be an actor, but Lee decided to prove them wrong, and took bit parts, small roles, and stock characters for the next ten years, using the experiences to listen and learn the craft as we went. In 1957, Lee was cast as the monster in Hammer Studios foray into horror films, The Curse of Frankenstein. Playing opposite him as the deranged Dr. Frankenstein was Peter Cushing. They became lifelong friends and starred in twenty films together. Having worked with director Terence Fischer already, he was cast as Dracula the following year in The Horror of Dracula, with Cushing along to play Van Helsing. It’s not possible to overstate the impact Lee’s performance had on the character. Two decades after Lugosi’s turn, filmed in garish color, Lee’s Dracula has all of the aristocratic charm and poise that Lee could effortlessly bring to the role. But when blood was shed, and the vampire emerged, Lee turned into a force of nature; fast, strong, violent, terrifying, and ultimately, sexy. His portrayal was the final ingredient to the pop culture construction of Dracula.
Lee enjoyed a second career in his final years that began with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as the white wizard Saruman, and later, in the Star Wars saga, as Count Dooku, but Lee never strayed far from his horror roots. He borrowed a quote from Anthony Perkins when he said, “I don’t play villains, I play people.” Some of his best roles are just that, but since these are horror movie lists, I’ve constrained myself from mentioning Rochefort in The Three Musketeers and Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, as that would be cheating. As with Lugosi and Karloff, Lee’s contributions to Dracula and Frankenstein will be found on separate Top 5 lists.
5. City of the Dead (1960)
A young university student decides to visit one of the quaint little Massachusetts towns where they executed a witch in 1692 and vanishes, according to her brother and fiancée (we know what becomes of her, don’t worry). When they can’t find her lodging in the directory, they trek out to Whitewood, Mass, and start poking their big city noses around, ruffling feathers, and drawing a lot of attention to themselves. They even try to get the student’s professor involved (played by Christopher Lee), only to find out he already is…
This low-budget black and white potboiler has a premise that’s slightly ahead of its time, and it’s not unfair to consider it an early swing at Folk Horror. The movie succeeds in building tension through character’s attitudes and reactions. Lee’s role is minor, but important to the story. Structurally, the first third of the movie is similar to Psycho—a young girl goes missing, people come looking for her and discover What’s Really Going On.
There’s a minor historical footnote found in the film’s producer, Milton Subotsky, and his uncredited partner, Max Rosenberg, were two American filmmakers who worked on City of the Dead and a few short years later, formed Amicus Productions, where they made a slew of classic horror and suspense films, including a number of horror anthologies. The history of Amicus and the movies they made, as well as the movies they didn’t make, is a whole other thing. But they had good tastes in horror and the good sense to use British stalwarts like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
4. The Gorgon (1964)
A village in Eastern Europe is suffering from a series of unsolved—nay, unexplainable—murders, seven in five years. All of the victims turned to stone. Despite the authorities’ intentions to keep it quiet, the word still gets out. The latest victim is a young woman, and the police immediately seek out her boyfriend, only to find him hanged in the forest. They conclude it was a murder-suicide combo and sweep it under the rug. This doesn’t sit well with the boy’s father, nor his brother, nor their family friend and tutor, all of whom show up in the village to figure out what happened and end up dead, aged horribly, or up to their neck in intrigue and deception, and everyone thinks they know who the gorgon is…
This is an odd and somewhat obscure Hammer film; there’s definitely nothing else like it that I can think of, especially a film working in the gothic traditions of Hammer’s overall aesthetic, and for that we have to acknowledge veteran director Terence Fisher. Christopher Lee gets to play the heroic role for once, stepping in halfway through the movie to dispense wisdom and get stuff done; kind of like Van Helsing always did, and opposing him is the lecherous Peter Cushing in another unscrupulous doctor role, and as always, the two of them together are usually worth the price of admission for that alone.
The Gorgon is, well, about as good as 1964 could make it, and the effect of someone turning to stone isn’t that interesting nor instantaneous by any means; there’s usually just enough time to write a hurried letter or not, as the plot dictated. There are still enough interesting turns, if not twists, to keep you guessing, and bonus! You get to see Christopher Lee with a sword during the very medieval climactic scene. Rather, as an idea or a concept piece, the film is quite fun and makes for a great change of pace from vampires, werewolves, and mummies.
3. Theatre of Death (1967)
Christopher Lee plays the director and auteur of the Theater du Morte, a Grand Guignol-style house that specializes in on-stage death, dismemberment, and bloodletting, and his vision is to return the theatre to its former glory as the must-see spectacle of live entertainment. It’s too bad that there’s a murderer on the loose, a so-called “vampire” killer who is exsanguinating his victims by means of a special, triangular blade. It’s only natural that the police, aided by a former doctor who is now a consultant, should gravitate to the goings on at the theatre as a place to scare up some likely suspects.
Lee’s charisma and presence are brought fully to bear and very nearly weaponized in his role as the Svengali-like and tyrannical director with ambition and vision. He is undoubtedly unlikable and cruel, but is he the killer? I’m not telling, and you may well go through the whole movie guessing, for there are certainly enough suspects to choose from, including the former doctor turned consulting detective Julian Glover.
Theatre of Death is a minor film, not often touted as one of Lee’s best roles, but he’s doing something different here, and the film itself strikes a pretty good balance between horror and mystery-suspense, with the weight on the latter. The theatrical sequences are nicely handled, if a bit sensational, but then again, that was how the real Grand Guignol operated.
2. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
When old wartime friends get together for their annual reunion, and one of them doesn’t show up because he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, it falls to Duc de Richleau (aka Uncle Nick, played by Christopher Lee) and Rex van Ryn to check in on Simon Aron, who has ceased communication with them. The pair motor over to Aron’s estate (complete with a new observatory) and crash a little gathering of occult enthusiasts, numbering 13 in all. De Richleau catches on that there’s satanic forces at work, and they set about to foiling the cult’s plans with fists, nerve, bravado, and a touch of Solomonic magic to combat the forces of darkness.
This hard-to-find movie is often cited as an example of a Folk Horror movie because of the presence of the cultists, I imagine, but I would categorize it as falling under my Top 5 Devils and Demons movies, more for its pieces and parts than its overall presentation. That’s not to say it isn’t effective as a horror movie—it is, having been adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson, produced by Hammer Studios and directed with aplomb by veteran Hammer director Terence Fisher. But this isn’t the usual heaving bosom gothic romp; the film is set in the 1930s, in keeping with Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name. In that capacity, it’s extremely pulpy with punches, headlong chases, and a couple of great scenes with magical subtext that bring to mind the works of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft.
What the movie does well is to show the dark and sinister underside of the idle rich and gives an idea of how evil can insinuate its way into polite society and take root. The Devil Rides Out is aptly named, as it gallops along at a hellacious clip, and makes the most of its hour and a half run time. Lee shines in the movie, and he considered the film one of his best roles, and one of his favorite movies. How could it not make the list?
1. Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)
Hard-drinking, hard-loving Grigori Rasputin is driven out of his order for carousing and fornicating and also for daring to heal the innkeeper’s wife with the touch of his hands—something the abbot declares would not be given by God to such a horrible sinner—so the healing power must come from the devil, of course. Undeterred, Rasputin continues his swath of debauchery and finds himself in the St. Petersburg, where he uses is powers of persuasion on the Czarina’s lady in waiting to engineer an accident for the young boy in her care. Naturally, she says she knows of a monk who can heal the boy…
This historical quasi-horror romp from Hammer features Christopher Lee at his hypnotic, charismatic best; who better to portray the so-called Mad Monk than Hammer’s leading man? Even though the film is based only loosely on Rasputin’s exploits, Lee took the role seriously and dove into the history of the Russian Tzar and the events surrounding the Royal family’s assassination. Whether or not that helped his process, Less is fascinating to watch; his Rasputin is every bit as charismatic as his Dracula, but the power is internal rather than external.
Rasputin, the Mad Monk was plagued with budget cuts and that meant some interesting scenes were snipped out and even a few things filmed, like an epic final fight, were trimmed for some reason. However, what we got is more than sufficient to enjoy Lee at his best, in full-on rapscallion mode, giving it his all. Years later, he said, ‘”Healer and rapist, peasant and seer, Rasputin was a legendary enigma, a real actor’s part, one of the best I’d had.”