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Robert Monell & Alex Mendíbil Blog Alliance

THE DAY THAT THE MOVIES DIED: Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

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Christopher Lee R.I.P: the towering, both in terms of height and talent, actor/singer/legend, has passed at the age of 93. His prolific career, from Shakespeare to Hammer horror to the Italian Gothics of Mario Bava and co. to Jess Franco, James Bond and The Lord of the Rings, was staggering in its scope. He could play comedy, tragedy, Dracula, Fu Manchu, villains and romantic heroes of all types, but he was always somehow Christopher Lee. His imposing baritone voice was unmistakeable and unforgetable We won’t see his likes again anytime soon. An indelible phantom in many of my childhood movie memories the news of his death took my breath away for a moment. He seemed immortal, and now perhaps he is. For me, this is the day the movies I’ve had a passion for since 1965 finally died. The news of the image death of Christopher Lee was the knock out punch/the wake-up call. More later when I can lookgather my thoughts on him, Jess Franco, the films they made together, and the end of an era. We all realize that we will die, but when a family member, a close friend or an iconic figure who meant something special in our lives precedes us emotion wells up and we sense our own mortality. For younger people and contemporary movie fans the death of Sir Christopher Lee will mean the loss of the elegant, towering British actor who appeared in STAR WARS films and THE LORD OF THE RINGS cycle. And maybe they’ll also note that he joyously issued Heavy Metal albums at Christmastime. Older fans of “cult” cinema, European Horror especially, will remember him for his Hammer horror films which made him world famous starting with his role as the creature in Terence Fisher’s 1957 hit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He went on to play many other roles for Hammer but will most likely be most closely associated with his numerous appearances of Count Dracula in a series of films starting with Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958. He played the Count until the beginning of the 1970s, and his preferred performance in that role was in Jess Franco’s 1969 EL CONDE DRACULA, where, as in the novel, the character grew visibly younger as the story progressed. Lee also added lines of dialogue from Bram Stoker’s novel into the shooting process, which was low-budget and rushed under the erratic stewardship of screenwriter-producer Harry Alan Towers. It may be the definitive presentation of the character, although some would argue for Bela Lugosi’s very different interpretation in Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA. Lee went through the 1960s hopping from Hammer horror roles, he also played FU MANCHU, Sherlock Holmes and other characters for other companies, to Italian horror films, the best being Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY, a 1963 Gothic where Lee played a chilling, sadistic count who haunted the mind of a disturbed former lover (Dahlia Lavi). He seemed to specialize in roles as sinister figures (Antonio Margheriti’s THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG), mad scientists (the 1967 W. German production THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM) and various mad aristocrats (CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD)  in his Italian and other European horrors of the mid 1960s. Back in the UK there were his villain roles for director Freddie Francis, two of the best being in THE SKULL (1965) and THE CREEPING FLESH (1973). After three successful FU MANCHU films produced by Harry Alan Towers, including two directed by Don Sharp, Lee embarked on a series of films for Towers to be directed by the notorious Spanish maverick, Jess Franco. At the same time he remained busy making other films but his work for Franco has special interest for this blog. After his fercious interpretation of the Count in Fisher’s DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965)–all silent, lunging menace, a feral Dracula–his rigid, some would say campy, line readings as Fu Manchu in Franco’s THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969), take us to the other end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, he physically remained very credible in the role, although the films pretty much disappointed at the box office. The most interesting elements of the latter being Jess Franco’s amusing presence in the role of an Istanbul police officer and the use of an entire scene from THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) as stock footage. Lee’s three following roles for Towers-Franco were where he really broke out. As the tormented tormentor Judge Jeffries in THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970) (a film from which I fled during a local 1971 drive-in screening) he delivered a layered, credible performance in what could have been a one-dimensional villain role. He is equally effective as the acid-tongued sadist (replacing George Sanders at the last moment) in Franco’s 1970 Sade adaptation EUGENIE… THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION aka DE SADE 70. Later in 1969 Lee showed up in Spain for the difficult shoot of EL CONDE DRACULA, which he took on because Towers had promised that it would be a close adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which Lee admired and wanted to do as written. It didn’t work out that way, possibly due to the anxiety of Towers to get it done quickly and cheaply and the probable mismatching of Jess Franco with a proposed literal, faithful adaptation of the famous story. Franco would go on to produce Dracula films “his” way, such as DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (1971) and LA FILLE DE DRACULA (1972), with Howard Vernon in the title role, which were much more personal and original, but far, far away from Stoker’s novel. Lee can almost be considered the auteur of EL CONDE DRACULA since he commands total attention, sets the atmosphere and even insisted on the dialogue whenever he’s onscreen. He suggests a civilized monster who is prone to quickly and completely devolving into a wild bloodthirsty lower animal when necessary. It pushes his silent, snarling seducer in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS several degrees further to great effect. His scenes with the equally legendary Soledad Miranda are drenched in an outre eroticism at which Jess Franco sometimes excelled. His subsequent appearances as the character in more Hammer productions never come close to this. Lee would eventually abandon the Dracula series and embark on other roles in British and continental horror. Some personal favorites include his imperious explorer in Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS, a 1972 Spanish horror which continued his pairing with yet another legend, his friend Peter Cushing, an acting master in his own right. He also went on to play a Bond villain in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1975), but some of my own favorite Christopher Lee roles were as heroic, positive characters, such as with the  cerebral Edwardian aristocrat who courageously takes on in evil coven in Terence Fisher’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968). He also gave an interesting complexity to his drug lord role in a later role for Jess Franco in Eurocine’s DARK MISSION (1987). A highly recommended Spanish production in which Lee appeared, made during the shooting of EL CONDE DRACULA, was Pedro Portabella’s CUADECUS (VAMPIR), an experimental feature documentary on the making of the Franco-Towers production. Shot in stark black and white, illustrated by an abstract, eerie soundtrack which doesn’t include any narration of on-set sound until the very last scene, during which Lee addresses the camera, riveting attention with a stunning, authoritative reading of the final scene of Bram Stoker’s novel. After the reading Lee closes the book and stares into the camera lens for an unnerving interval. It’s one of his most unique and hypnotic performances. Christopher Lee didn’t really want to be remembered for being a memorable Count Dracula or for his many other horror roles. He wanted to move on, and he did with courage, character and style. He lived a long, full life and managed to find of place in 21st Century cinema and culture, introducing himself to a new generation of film fans. For me, though, he will represent some of the most electrifying cinema moments of that Golden Age of Cinefantastique from 1957 to the mid 1970s when a certain type of cinema, a certain type of horror/fantasy, very different from today’s, ruled at the box office and in popular culture worldwide. We probably won’t see anyone like him again in our lifetime or anything like that era again either, but it was enthralling fun when it was at its height and Christopher Lee was one of its legendary magicians. The last of a generation of horror titans who were classically trained, were driven by a work ethic and could play anything that was given them. Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff were his sometime collaborators and equals. They are all together now, in the past, in memory, in the films of my and every fan’s collection, ready to come to life again. (C) Robert Monell, 2015

Written by Robert Monell

11 junio 2015 a 6:39 PM

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  1. A sad day. You’re quite right, Lee gave a moving performance even in the soporific, haphazard DARK MISSION.

    alexbakshaev

    11 junio 2015 at 11:25 PM


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