Christopher Lee Fun and Mayhem
By Kristin Battestella
In my recent streak of Vincent Price love, I feel I’ve somewhat neglected my other great titan of horror cinema: the undeniable Christopher Lee. With hundreds of films to his credit and continued appearances in great franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, it would be near impossible to make a list of total Lee satisfactions. Nevertheless, here is a brief list of creepy Christopher delights- with some Price and Peter Cushing tossed in for spooky good measure.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) – Director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, not to mention 4 Frankenstein sequels) puts the Hammer spin on this Mary Shelley classic with more frame and focus on Peter Cushing’s mad scientist Baron Victor von Frankenstein than his monster creation Christopher Lee. Robert Urquhart (Knights of the Round Table) is delightful as the tragic voice of reason, and Hazel Court (The Masque of the Red Death) adds the proper feminine screams, too. Although the colorful Victorian style is typical and the old time science is downright phooey, the creepy tone, kinky undercurrent, and sinister plots build wonderfully. Even knowing how this tale plays out, there are still plenty of scares, suspense, and unethical monstrosities to be had here.
Horror of Dracula – Well, well. Director Terence Fisher is here again for the one that started it all! Even with little dialogue, Lee is tall and imposing, his stature and glare deadly and delightful. Appearing a half hour into the film, top billed Peter Cushing as Van Helsing is also simply badass. There are unique changes to the tale from Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Frankenstein) of course, with library scholar Harker engaged to Lucy and more character switcharoos. Dracula is also decidedly styled as an English gentleman yet the story never leaves Central Europe. This also doesn’t look 1958 as we expect from the Leave It to Beaver types. Yes, it’s bright and colorfully filmed in the style of the time, but this Dracula is dark, gothic, and feels earnest, passionate, deadly. There’s something so nasty about the way Lucy opens the door, removes her cross, lays out, and unbuttons the nightgown! All the staples- stakes, garlic, candles, coffins- are here; everything we expect a proper vampire tale to be twists together with great deception and scares. Hot damn!
House of the Long Shadows – It’s Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine all in one movie! Couldn’t a classic horror fan just die with glee? With a cast like that, you almost don’t need a solid plot. Wow. Nonetheless, director Pete Walker (Die Screaming Marianne, Frightmare) gives the audience a juicy and spooky tale of a cocky writer (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) holed up in a spooky Welsh Mansion on a stormy night with these secretive horror heavyweights, a clickity typewriter, and lots of candles. The music, atmosphere, and isolation here are everything a haunted house movie should be- even with the surprising ending. Though dated, low budget, and a little too dark in some scenes, there are enough scares and twists to be had here, indeed. Unfortunately, this 1983 treat is not available on DVD- what cruel trickery is that?
The House That Dripped Blood – This 1970 anthology boasting Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who), Denholm Elliot (Indiana Jones) and Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula) offers four framed tales of witchcraft, murder, macabre, and vampires. Looking fittingly old, gothic, and atmospheric, the storytelling is also spooky and spot on with intelligent deraignment, timed scares, and finely disturbed performances. Even with a few plot holes expected in tying an anthology together, director Peter Duffell (King of the Wind) and writer Robert Bloch (Psycho, Asylum) keep the tales taunt, intense, and damn, downright frightening to even an advanced horror viewer such as myself.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death – This 1959 Parisian bizarrity from frequent Hammer helmer Terence Fisher stars Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare, Fahrenheit 451) as a wonderfully subdued but no less maniacal sculptor with an unnaturally prolonged life. Hazel Court is again the juicy object of affections as always, and Our Man Christopher looks the Parisian suave and debonair good doctor. The mix of accents might be tough for contemporary untrained ears, but the European flair adds a nice authenticity and upscale feeling along with the lavish- if small- sets. Yes, the effects are cheap- amounting to shadow makeup and green lighting for the most part, and something that, well, looks like mud. Big whoop. Even so, Diffring’s perfectly brewing performance and Lee’s surprising antithesis to the sinister carry the creepy across just fine. Who knew?