Lee, Christopher

Enlarge picture
Christopher Lee’s last appearance in a vampire movie was inthe French comedy Dracula and Son.
Enlarge picture
Christopher Lee as Dracula, the role for which he is most famous.

Lee, Christopher (1922–)

(pop culture)

Actor Christopher Lee, who, after Bela Lugosi, is most often identified with portraying the vampire Dracula, has played the Count in more different motion pictures than anyone. He was born on May 27, 1922, in London, England, and later attended Wellington College. In 1947 he signed a contract with J. Arthur Rank, which led to his first film appearance in Corridor of Blood. Thus began one of the most active screen careers, which by the mid-1980s saw Lee with parts in more than 130 movies.

His career rose steadily through the 1950s to 1957 when he was brought together with three other people at Hammer Films who altered his life dramatically. Responding to the success of several science fiction/horror movies, Hammer obtained the motion picture rights to some of Universal Pictures’ classic monster movies and hired Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Cushing, and Lee to film a new version of Frankenstein. Lee starred as Frankenstein’s monster in the highly successful The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The four were called together the following year to do a remake of Dracula (1897), best known as The Horror of Dracula. Although The Curse of Frankenstein, in Lee’s words, “started it all,” it was The Horror of Dracula that made Lee a star and put Hammer on the map as the new king of on-the-screen horror.

Changes in technology and in public mores allowed Lee to present a much different Dracula. Most noticeably, Lee was more directly a creature of horror, dropping much of the image of the suave continental gentleman perpetuated by Lugosi. Unlike Lugosi, Lee had fangs, that he showed to the audience, and he attacked his female victims on camera. Lacking any clear direction from the production staff, Lee developed Dracula as a complex human who had great positive qualities—leadership, charm, intelligence, and sensuality—coupled with a savage and ferocious streak that would lead to his eventual downfall. Dracula also had a tragic quality, his undead immortality.

The Horror of Dracula was an unexpected success, but it would be some years before Lee would return to the role. Meanwhile, he went to Italy to make a comedic vampire movie, Tempi duri per I Vampiri (Hard Times for Vampires), and Lee has insisted that the vampire he portrayed was not Dracula, but a Baron Rodrigo. He then returned to Hammer for further work on the first round of the Universal horror series as Kharis in The Mummy (1960). Moving back to Italy, he worked with director Mario Bava, for whom he played the vampire Lico, whom Hercules confronts in the underworld.

While Lee was working on the continent, Hammer had made its first movie about Carmilla, the vampire in Sheridan Le Fanu‘s 1872 tale of the same name. Lee was then invited to assume the part of Count Ludwig Karnstein in the 1963 Spanish version of the story, La Maledicion de los Karnsteins (a.k.a. Terror in the Crypt). It would be another five years before Lee returned to Hammer, where, together with Fisher and Sangster, he made his next Dracula movie. Dracula, Prince of Darkness began with the final scene from The Horror of Dracula, in which Abraham Van Helsing killed Dracula. Dracula was revived by the pouring of blood on his ashes.

For Lee, this second Dracula movie was unique in that he never spoke a line, merely grunted and groaned. Whereas The Horror of Dracula had made Lee a star, the series of movies made during the seven years beginning in 1966, when Dracula, Prince of Darkness was filmed, forever identified him with the role. Most of these—Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1969), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), The Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, aka Count Dracula and His Vampire Brides (1973)—were panned by the critics but found an appreciative audience among the growing legion of vampire fans.

While Lee was turning out the series of Hammer movies, two historians, Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, were researching the historical Dracula, the Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler. Their first report on their research appeared in 1972 as In Search of Dracula. In 1974 a Swedish production crew filmed a documentary based on the book and bearing the same title. Lee was selected to narrate the movie and to appear in scenes as Vlad.

Lee believed that each of the Hammer films moved him further and further from the Dracula of Bram Stoker‘s novel. For example, Dracula Has Risen from His Grave contained a scene in which Lee pulled a stake out of his own heart, an action he considered at the time completely out of character. Thus, in 1970 he jumped at the chance to star in Jesus Franco’s version of the Dracula story, El Conde Dracula. Unlike previous versions, Franco’s Dracula made a place for all of the novel’s main characters, and during the opening scenes stayed relatively close to the book.

The script soon began to deviate, however, and in the end wandered far from the text (attributed partly to an extremely low budget). In one aspect, Lee was very happy with the film; it allowed him to portray Dracula as he was pictured in the book, although Lee lacked the hairy palms and the elongated ears and fingers. Lee did bring out Dracula’s progressively more youthful appearance as he drained the blood of Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray. Franco’s film soon entered the ranks of the forgotten movies, although high marks were given to Pedro Portabella, who made a film about the making of El Conde Dracula. Portabella’s Vampir was acclaimed as an artistic meditation on death. Lee starred in the final scenes, in which he described Dracula’s death and read the last chapter of the novel, in which Dracula was killed.

Lee’s last appearance in a vampire movie was as Dracula in the 1976 film, Dracula and Son (a French comedy originally released as Dracula pere et Fils). Lee had played enough different roles to stave off the terror of any actor, typecasting, but at this point he swore off vampire movies altogether. He had supporting parts in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Hannie Caulder (1972) and the title role as the villain in the James Bond movie Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He went on to have significant character roles in a variety of films, such as Airport 77 (1976), Return to Witch Mountain (1977), and 1941 (1979). He also appeared in the film Cyber Eden (1994), an Italian science fiction production.

Lee wrote an initial autobiography, Tall, Dark, and Gruesome (1977, revised edition 2009) which he revised on several occasions, before producing a new autobiography, Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee, in 2004. He also worked with both Michael Parry and Peter Haining on anthologies of horror stories. He also contributed numerous comments to Robert W. Pohle, Jr., and Douglas C. Hart’s study of The Films of Christopher Lee, and an afterward to Tom Johnson and Mark Miller’s 2004 filmography of his films.

Sources:

Haining, Peter, ed. More of Christopher Lee’s New Chamber of Horrors. London: Mayflower, 1976. 159 pp.
Johnson, Tom, and Mark A. Miller. The Christopher Lee Filmography: All Theatrical Releases, 1948–2003. Jeffersonville, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004. 480 pp.
———, and Michel Parry. Christopher Lee’s X. Certificate. 2 vols. London: 1975. Reprinted as From the Archives of Evil. New York: Warner Books, 1976. 205 pp.
———. Tall, Dark and Gruesome: An Autobiography. London: W. H. Allen, 1977. Rev. ed.: London: Victor Gollancz, 1997. 320 pp. Rept. Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee Press, 2009. 320 pp.
Lee, Christopher. Christopher’s Lee Treasury of Terror. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1988. 663 pp.
Kelley, Bill. “Christopher Lee: King of the Counts.” In Dracula: The Complete Vampire. Special issue of Starlog Movie Magazine Presents. No.6. New York: Starlog Communications, 1992: pp. 44–53.
———. “What Dracula Is Up To.” Imagi-Movies 1, 2 (Winter 1993–1994): 46–48.
———. Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee. London: Orion Publishing, 2004. 4,448 pp.
Pohle, Robert W., Jr., and Douglas C. Hart. The Films of Christopher Lee. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983. 227 pp.
Rigby, Jonathan. Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History. Reynolds & Hearn, 2007. 304 pp.