Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Last Great Horror Star: Deceased Artiste Christopher Lee

I grew up worshiping Boris Karloff. I also revere Vincent Price. But I was never scared of them as a kid – they were friendly monsters/scientists/wizards/doomed noblemen. The Hammer films, however, were scary to a kid brought up on the Universal pics and the Corman/Poe movies. Hammer broke all the rules when resurrecting the classic monsters, and the man they got to incarnate nearly all of those monsters was Christopher Lee.

Lee's obits perfectly summed up what he brought to the role of Dracula: he was younger and more conventionally handsome than Bela Lugosi (Lee was 36 – Lugosi had been 49), he looked like dynamite in the cape and fangs, and he had a deep, commanding voice that made it understandable that people could be hypnotized into following him.

The Hammer vision of Dracula, though, was more like a comic book version of the character (a poorly scripted comic book), in that they changed the rules of the vampire's powers from film to film. Lee complained about this publicly on more than one occasion, but he starred as the Count in seven Hammer films (as well as two other projects – the Jess Franco “adaptation” of Stoker and the French comedy Dracula Father and Son – and he made two cameos as Drac in the comedies The Magic Christian and One More Time; I'm setting aside his appearance in In Search of Dracula).

Lee's Dracula may have been one of the most majestic-looking bloodsuckers ever, but he also did things that seemed to have been introduced just to add a “new wrinkle” to the character (or maybe justify yet another sequel?). He hissed, he went through an entire feature not speaking, and he performed feats of strength that were more Hercules than Vlad the Impaler.

The one that got me, I mean *really* got me, as a kid was the moment in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1969) where he was in his coffin, had been staked through the heart, and then pulled the fucking stake out! I never would admit when I was scared by a horror movie (or else you wouldn't get to see any more – kids know the bargain here), but I was really fucked up by the sight of Lee's Drac getting livid that he'd been staked while resting and thus bloodily tearing the wooden spike out of his goddamned heart.

The reason that this did me in was that the Universal pictures adhered to the rules of the genre (even in the sillier all-monster “jam” pics and the “Abbott and Costello Meet...” movies). Sure, they switched things around (the voice of Lugosi's Igor coming from the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein). But they generally stuck to the rules they began with (which they mostly made up – none of these adaptations were strictly Stoker because he has the vampire “off-screen” [or in animal form] for most of the book).

That one moment of Dracula de-staking himself made a very deep impression on me as a kid and made me realize that, while they frustrated me with their ever-changing depictions of the monsters, the Hammer films did serve a purpose – namely, to scare the shit out of impressionable wee ones. (And now I see from the U.S. trailers posted on YT that the film was rated “G” – I was a wimpy kid, I guess, or else the ratings board thought that the film offered a pale comparison to Bonnie and Clyde and other bloody films of the same era...)

Since I have no embedded videos to offer of another role in which I found Lee incredibly charming and, yes, funny, I will just slide a mention of it in here at the end. Lee played Martin Mull's menacing mega-corporate boss in the Seventies satire of “new age” lifestyles, Serial (1980).

Lee was very versatile, given that he was not one of the best British actors. He was a busy performer who took on challenging parts and clearly loved to play with his “scary” image (in this regard, he was no doubt influenced by his colleague and friend Vincent Price). Thus, he did occasionally play in comedy to spoof the seriousness of his imposing dramatic and horror roles (including supporting roles in the “Three Musketeer” duo by Richard Lester, 1941, and Gremlins 2).

In Serial his “other side” is revealed when a gay biker gang breaks up a new age wedding and the leader's helmet comes off, revealing... Christopher Lee! When he is asked about this by Mull in a later scene in his office, he asks what exactly is wrong about wearing leather “and listening to Judy Garland records.” Again, the menacing majesty of Lee makes the line funnier than it would've been had some sitcom actor played the role.

So it's farewell to the only actor since the long-gone days of Universal who played most of the great movie monsters. Here is the scene that so warped my mind as a kid:

And here is an oddity I found: a funny (supposedly) ad in which Dracula's aged mom (who is an American old lady) talks about her trouble with her son, to promote Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (rated G – yes, I was an impressionable fucking kid!)