RIP Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015)
We don’t start a tribute of this importance with a mere Wikipedia decant or some broadsheet hagiography, no my gentle fiends we must start here. ‘Christopher Lee was fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and was moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek’ – as a starter for ten I think that gives us an impression of the great man and his stature across the world cinema stage. Heretically I was going to dust off the old (and probably apocryphal) Peter Lorre gag made at Bela Lugoisi’s funeral, but somehow that seems a little disrespectful for Christopher Lee, as I’d wager that over the past couple of decades he did manage to slightly shake off the incorporeal shadow of the dread count, with a late career renaissance in some of the biggest films of recent memory. However we must nip any expectations in the bud and plunge our fangs into the horrific House of Hammer, and rather than go to the obvious 1958 icon I’d rather reference a later cycle picture which is one of my favourites along with The Devil Rides Out;
This was obviously a conscious step away from the monster led genre gruesomes of The Wolf Man,The Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein (which was Lee’s first appearance remember, not the better remembered Alucard) to the then popular realms of the occult, the brimstone inflected executives steering the ghost studio ship into nastier waters to exploit the successes of The Omen and The Exorcist and the wider satanic panic in the culture at large. To The Devil A Daughter is like a perfectly executed Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario, spooky and sinister, with a desperate ritualistic ending.
When ever anyone starts quaffing and pontificating on superhero movies my personal yardstick is to scan their literature for any reference to The Return Of Captain Invincible, it simply never gets referenced unless you’re grappling with a cinephile who truly knows his cinematic onions. It’s not a great film by any means but as always Lee added a certain gravitas, and I thought we must have one musical interlude to do the man proud.
As we’ve previously established I’m not really a Bond fan but growing up I was fascinated with three specific ingredients of some 007 pictures. The first was the last scene of Live & Let Die, the second was John Barry’s terrific score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the third was the cucumber chilled cool of Scaramanga whom I thought was a really boss villain, until that interfering Roger Moore turned up and spoiled all the fun. Of course I have to make the obligatory reference that Lee was Ian Flemings step-cousin, or a special squad of MI5 operatives will be despatched to disappear my (SESSION TERMINATED)…..
‘When I was shooting the stabbing shot with Christopher, as a director would I was explaining to him what he should do…and he says ‘Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back?’ And I said, ‘Um, no.’ And he says ‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’” – Peter Jackson, on set with Chris during the filming of that sequence. Lee’s Second World War II service is quite remarkable and would have made him a legend even if he had never trod the boards, seeing action all over the European theatre, witnessing first hand the camps, and being in the progenitor to the SAS is quite remarkable. One wonders how much of that experience was channelled into some of his work…….
I dislike the prequels just like everyone else with two brain cells to rub together but at least he made the scenes he was in worthy of your attention, and I kinda like instead of being precious he always saw himself as an actor, it was a job and he took them on as you would any freelance contract in any other industry, an attitude which may have contributed to his extraordinary 206 film credits. According to interviews with him over the years even that astonishing prolificacy is not complete as according to the great man there was some European stuff in the 1960’s and 1970’s which never surfaced in English language markets. Roughly speaking that’s a production rate of three films a year……for sixty-five years. Although he was famed for his horror roles will any of us really be as chilled or horrified as the shudder inducing Mission To Moscow?
It’s almost as fascinating to consider the films he didn’t secure as the roles he did – Sam Loomis in the slasher scything Halloween, Magneto in the X-Men pictures, and Shirley You Can’t Be Serious he was offered Leslie Nielsen’s career defining role in Airplane!? He was never afraid to slightly spoof his own persona as well, as we can see in the underappreciated Gremlins 2 which has built quite the ferocious little fan-base over the years.
I only caught Mario Bava’s rather degenerate The Whip & The Body last year following a recent Blu-Ray update, just thought I’d throw it in to give you all a lashing of his European work, it is quite an odd film as you can tell from that rather risqué fragment. So lets see, Chris has been in a Bond, a Star Wars, five Tolkien’s (if you count the EE cuts), a Scorsese, a Spielberg, some Mario Bava, Jess Franco and a Jodorowsky, Tim Burton has supplied him with numerous cameo roles since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, there are the immortal & iconic Hammers and finally of course there was his personal favourite of all his performances, in a film which is the very personification of an all time great cult movie;
Unadulterated noxious nightmare fuel – pure and simple. So that’s that then, with his passing a true era dissolves into the eerie mists of horror cinema history – Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and now Christopher Lee all gone, and the silver scream will never be graced with their presence again. Let’s close with that baratone voice, powered with such an intimidating intonation, like the reverberations from a yawning, crawling crypt,