Monday, July 27, 2015

More Than a Monster: A Tribute to Christopher Lee

On June 7th, 2015, the world lost one of its true great "Renaissance Men", and one of its most talented actors in the comparatively brief history of motion pictures. When Sir Christopher Lee passed away, the world also lost the very last of the classic horror icons. All the other greats, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Vincent Price, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Peter Lorre, Donald Pleasance, and even his dear friend Peter Cushing, had all passed long before him, all gone by the early 90s. But Lee was a "younger man" compared to most of them, and a very vital man, full of life til the end. With his passing, though, the book is finally forever closed on that classic era of yesterday.

Lee holding an Invasion pod, just kind of speaks for itself.

I am sorry to say, that I did not really get around to experiencing and thus enjoying and appreciating Mr. Lee and his work, until my adult years. Like with many things, the grandmother who raised me until my teens, was a very odd duck when it came to what she would and would not "allow" me to watch. For instance, she would "allow" me to watch, as a child, movies that scared the living fuck out of me at that age, such as "The Stuff", or "Night of the Creeps", or John Carpenter's "The Thing". But she, for whichever of her own dumb reasons, did not want me to watch things that involved vampires, or Frankenstein, or what have you. So EVEN THOUGH I grew up watching some amazing old movies, such as Ray Harryhausen's works, or King Kong, or classic Godzilla, or any number of other old school science fiction, fantasy or "horror" films, I did not get to grow up seeing MUST SEE classics like Bela Lugosi's "Dracula", or Boris Karloff's "Frankenstein", or really any Mummy films, or "The Invisible Man" (even though I was allowed to read the book), etc. So most of the classic Universal era films, I did not see until, for the most part, my adult years. And that extends to Hammer and their adaptations of similar themes, of which Mr. Lee of course was a huge star.

What I DID originally first see Sir Christopher in, as seen above, was his small (but hilarious) cameo role as Dr. Catheter in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2. I had no idea who he was, sadly, as a kid, so all he would have been to me, was that crazy mad scientist guy. I'm very certain TNT's MonsterVision even had a Hammer type night, where they played Hammer's "Horror of Dracula", but as I mentioned, that was like the ONE night that my grandmother was like "nope", because she was a born again Christian who was totally weird in that she was fine having me watch "Dune", a VERY heavy sci fi movie where a guy gradually becomes kind of a living god, but she didn't want me watching vampire stuff, because "they're evil". Yeah.

Lugosi is THE classic Dracula, but Lee is a close second.

So, once I DID finally, as in within the last 5-6 years, really start exploring more of the old Hammer Films catalog, I realized that I had been missing out on some really good shit. Mind you, I have a certain opinion on some of them. For example, when it comes to their long Dracula and Frankenstein series, I really only like the first one of each. But make no mistake, Lee as Dracula is pretty fantastic. I prefer Bela Lugosi's classic portrayal overall, but Lee brought his own style to it, making the character very wild and dangerous. It just so happened that Peter Cushing, his real life close friend, also made an amazing Van Helsing, and they played off of each other very well, as they always did.

Hammer's own, grisly take on The Monster. 

And Hammer's take on The Mummy

In fact, Cushing and Lee played together in Hammer's adaptations of all three famous Universal film series, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. All told, they featured together in over 20 films, most of which were for rival British horror studios Hammer Films and Amicus. Outside of the Universal adaptations, they starred together in Hammer's "Hound of the Baskervilles", a movie about Medusa called "The Gorgon", a film dealing with the Skull of the Marqius de Sade called "The Skull", a couple of isolated island films "Island of Terror" and "Night of the Big Heat", the really creepy and mildly disturbing 70s train-locked supernatural thriller "Horror Express", and many others. Towards the end of Cushing's career, they even made history together, as part of a historical ensemble in a little known horror satire called "The House of the Long Shadows", which was the only film to feature Cushing, Lee, Vincent Price, and classic horror actor John Carradine, all in one film. But beyond the world of film, they were also basically best friends, and always enjoyed whenever they were cast in a film together, because it gave them a chance to catch up. When Peter Cushing passed away in 1994, Lee was incredibly sad, and was quoted as saying that Cushing died because he had been "too good for this world", meaning that he was such a good man that the world did not deserve him. That is just how highly they thought of one another.

The best of friends. And Sammy Davis Jr.

And Lee himself was something of a marvel, as he beat out even Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney Jr., when it came to number of classic characters/monsters that he portrayed. For just Hammer alone, he played Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy "Kharis", Sir Henry Baskerville from the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (which also features Cushing as my favorite Holmes portrayal), and Grigori Rasputin. Outside of Hammer, he also played Sherlock Holmes himself, and his brother Mycroft Holmes, as well as the James Bond villain Scaramanga, the creepy but charismatic Lord Summerisle in "The Wicker Man", a misnamed but otherwise version of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in the film "I, Monster", he provided the voice of King Haggard in Rankin/Bass' animated film "The Last Unicorn", he played the part of Rochefort in The Three Musketeers films, and many others.

Late into his own career, in the 2000s, however, Mr. Lee got to enjoy something that many actors do not get, and that is something of a "second run", being in big, notable, memorable feature roles, the biggest of which of course being the part of Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the wizard Saruman the White in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" films. He was great in both roles, but a happy side effect of him becoming popular in those movies with whole new generations of fans, is that many of them would then become interested enough to go search out his older work, and discover classic gems like "Dracula", etc.

A powerful and commanding performance as the fallen wizard.

And the equally powerful and commanding performance as a Sith Lord.

Sir Christopher Lee was, of course, much more than merely an actor. He was, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, a true "Renaissance Man", because he was good at so many things. In his youth, during World War II he had served as something of a spy and nazi hunter. He could speak at least half a dozen languages. He was a talented and accomplished classical singer, which he put to use most notably, when he became the first and thus far only 80 something year old to record a heavy metal album. He worked with the Italian metal band Rhapsody in the 2000s, doing narration work for a couple of their albums, before deciding to record his own metal albums, in which he sang opera style. A man in his 80s who not only likes heavy metal music, but goes out of his way to make history by recording his own albums, is a man who has a taste and a hunger for life and for living. He was, in general, highly intelligent and well read, and a fiercely loyal friend by all accounts.

All in all, he was a man worth celebrating, because he provided people with so much entertainment in his life, and worked to touch lives in his private life. He was always friendly and gracious with his fans, and continued acting right up until near his death at the age of 93, not because he needed the money, but because he genuinely loved doing it, and did not simply want to be an old man sitting around waiting for death. I may not have had the pleasure of growing up loving his films. But I certainly sought them out and enjoy and appreciate them in my adult years. And I very much, as with all things I talk about here in my Retro Revelations, wish to inspire others to do the same. He was a one of kind actor, with a distinctive look, style, and iconic, unmistakable voice, all his own. Very few actors ever attain that "unmistakable" unique identity, but he did, simply by being himself. And he has now joined his fellow Horror Icons in the Other World, a deserved retirement after a brilliantly and fully lived life.

So go celebrate his life, pop in a Christopher Lee film, and enjoy. Cheers.