Indeed, “where to start with Christopher Lee?” is a question that deserves pondering, for even when completely ignoring Lee’s illustrious film career his personal life can be considered by most as extraordinary.
Descended from Italian aristocracy with a lineage that traces back to Charlemagne, even his childhood contained unbelievable encounters, including meeting the men who assassinated Rasputin. Early adulthood was mired by World War Two, in which he not only volunteered and enlisted to fight in both the Finnish and British armies, but even served as an Intelligence Officer in the British RAF – it goes without saying that some state secrets were taken to his grave and his real-life adventures served as an inspiration for a well-known literary character invented by his step-cousin Ian Fleming (James Bond).
Finally knighted in 2009, his life in itself would make a terrific plot for a movie regardless of his prolific acting career. However, like the rest of his life, this in itself is beyond remarkable.
With a career spanning across 8 decades and 286 acting roles, there isn’t another actor that could boast equal longevity and sustained popularity. He was in the game long enough to have made acquaintances with the authors whose creations he would go on to play, including Mervyn Peake and J. R. R. Tolkien, and would be a part of the major movie franchises of the 20th and 21st centuries from James Bond to Star Wars.
No other actor has had a comeback as comparably star-spangled and successful as his, hitting the big screen in the role of Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He is arguably the face of British Horror and the archetypal villain. So, where can one possibly start with this truly ginormous and legendary filmography?
For those who dare tread forward, presented to you now is a guide to Christopher Lee’s most iconic roles, best performances and most beloved films, to help you truly immerse yourself in the cult of Lee. This is Where to Start with Christopher Lee.
1. Dracula / The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Christopher Lee’s film career and walk towards fame truly started off in the features produced at Bray Studios that would come to be known as Hammer Horrors. His first big break was playing The Creature in Hammer’s version of the Mary Shelley tale The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a part he earned by his towering 6’4.5″ stature, and the fact that his agent asked for £2 less than his competitor, Bernard Bresslaw.
Lee wasn’t initially thrilled by this role, complaining to co-star (and soon to be best friend) Peter Cushing, that he had no lines; however The Curse of Frankenstein‘s box office success had single-handedly revived the horror franchise, making Hammer productions its powerhouse and Lee one of its stars.
It is not the Frankenstein franchise that rocketed Lee into stardom, however. Hammer soon tried their hand with adapting Bram Stoker’s famous novel, and it is in the role of Count Dracula that Lee earns the accolade as the undisputed face of British Horror.
For all those who ventured out at Halloween as children with white faces, glow in the dark fangs and smeared fake blood, it is an homage to Lee’s Dracula we had unwittingly made as he was the first actor to portray Dracula with red blood dripping down his chin. Of course Bela Lugosi’s turn as the Transylvanian Count is nothing short of iconic, but Lee’s performance is arguably more synonymous with the image of Dracula as he is the first one to truly bring the bloodlust and animalistic edge to the screen persona, matching that of the character described in the original novel.
Lee’s performance in his first movie of the Hammer Dracula franchise is nothing short of tremendous with regards to characterisation: the Count’s introduction is that of a unnervingly antiquated aristocrat, but of undeniable charm as he impresses an almost desperate courtesy onto his guest. All this is achieved in a mere handful of lines for after his welcoming of the ill-fated Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) to his house, his next scene is the now iconic image of the red-eyed snarling Dracula, berating one of his brides, blood still staining his teeth.
Lee is mute for the rest of the film, save a few growls and grunts, but it is this beast-like predatorial version of the Count that has remained so memorable in this history of horror. It is through Lee’s facial expressions that we are convinced that Dracula is an unforgivably malignant and vile creature, and that more importantly he delights in his depravity. His eyes shine with delight as a huge grin spreads over his face when he realises he has the chance to convert his foes to vampirism; such as when the sun finally sets before Harker can stake him, and when Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) succumbs to being strangled, giving Dracula a brief chance to sink his teeth into his arch nemesis’ neck.
Dracula’s paradoxical existence of charming Count and demonic monster is best represented by his interactions with his female victims. As Lucy (Carol Marsh) and Mina (Melissa Stribling) are preyed upon, they wait for his night-time attacks with literal bated breath upon their beds in a show of unmistakable and exquisite sexual anticipation. Lee’s Dracula approaches these women like a tiger, quietly prowling forward, his focus unwavering. His pounce upon them is like an act of foreplay; with Mina he deeply inhales her scent with obvious pleasure as he drags his parted lips over her face before sinking onto the bed with her. Lee’s passion in this performance risked this scene being cut from the film altogether.
The ferocity and lust of Lee’s Dracula is seen throughout most of the Hammer Dracula series, but the suggestion to start with the first one (the so-called Horror of Dracula in the US) is because it is the first collaboration of Christopher Lee with long-time friend and fellow star Peter Cushing, in the opposing roles of Dracula and Van Helsing, and their on-screen chemistry is electric.
The two distinct actors’ friendship often bled into their on-screen roles as they made a captivating pair: their shared screen time in The Horror of Dracula is very brief but is easily the highlight of the film, as naturally it contains a patented Cushing and Lee fight scene. Being from 1958, the fight lacks the choreography of modern movies, but what the pair lack in martial arts training they make up with dedication to their roles and sheer energy. Their near clumsy grapple with each other elicits a sense of anxiety as their desperation shows that both the Count and the Vampire Hunter know that to lose means certain death.
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2. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Entering prominence and international stardom through his work in the Hammer Horror movies, type-casting was an issue Lee struggled with throughout his career; his intimidating stature and baritone voice alone would have him continually pegged as the villain or monster. Although this villainous reputation would lend itself to the revival of his stardom in his twilight years, it was a more legitimate frustration earlier in his career. Hence The Devil Rides Out represents an interesting point in Lee’s filmography and the history of Hammer Horrors itself.
By 1968, Lee was undisputedly one of Hammer’s biggest stars and was regularly being poached by alternative Horror productions such as Amicus; Lee was now able to wield far more influence upon the producers than what he could 10 years prior. The Devil Rides Out came about by Lee’s suggestion for Hammer to adapt the works of the author Dennis Wheatley, whose fantasy-adventure novels would often involve the occult and black magic. The result is a film often considered to be the pinnacle of Hammer’s output and Lee’s own personal favourite Hammer Horror. No wonder really, for Lee was able to break his type-casting by playing one of the heroes, the Duc de Richleau.
The so-called Duke arrives on the scene for a planned reunion with his close friends, but suspicion is aroused when only Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) turns up and not their young companion, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). A curious investigation at Simon’s house (who seems to be having a party without his friends) reveals the bombshell that Simon has taken up black magic and is about to be initiated into a Satanic cult. Despite de Richleau’s abject horror and outrage, Rex is sceptical until he witnesses and rescues Simon (and fellow postulate Tanith played by Nike Arrighi, who he conveniently falls in love with) from a Black Sabbat. The group run for sanctuary from their fellow musketeers, Richard Eaton’s (Paul Eddington’s) house, but are pursued by the devil-worshippers’ leader, Mocata (Charles Gray), furious that his initiates have been stolen from his grasp. After a failed hypnotic attempt to retrieve them, Mocata resorts to powerful black magic to assault the group and claim their souls.
Through the years of terrifying devil-focused cinema including the like of The Exorcist and The Omen, to an extent the topic of Satanism has been trivialised for audiences, resulting in the likes of ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ and ‘Ash vs The Evil Dead’, so its definitely a curiosity to see a film that so wholeheartedly believes in the rituals portrayed within.
Lee states that the occult-themed Wheatley novels would be prefaced with the warning that black magic was real and was in fact highly dangerous: “Don’t think it doesn’t exist. And, whatever you do, don’t get involved.” Indeed a warning that impressed upon the religious Lee so much that he took it into his own personal living philosophy. In fact, the whole production team were suitably spooked by the source material – Lee’s influence over the movie continued due to the crew’s fears of doing any serious research into the portrayed witchcraft, resulting in Lee himself conducting most of the research, trawling through material in libraries to compose the spells and incantations the Duc de Richleau uses.
Christopher Lee’s hands-on approach in The Devil Rides Out results in one of his more larger than life performances, easily as memorable as his turns as a villain. Despite indulging in some unmistakeable scenery chewing (“You fool! You damn fool!”) and dialogue shamelessly used as a vehicle for needed black magic exposition, le Duc de Richleau is definitely a man you’d have on your side: knowledgeable, resourceful and authoritative, with the wisdom to protect his friends from devilish trickery and the bravery to fight off a giant tarantula. Lee’s solemn performance, fuelled by a genuine wariness of the dark forces, takes easily the most ridiculous scenes and turns them into gripping moments of horror.
“Before me, Raphael; Behind me, Gabriel.”
Although our love for Lee’s villain roles comes from a place of genuine appreciation for his talents, The Devil Rides Out is a genuinely refreshing entry into his filmography as it finally proves his diversity as an actor, flourishing within the classic Hammer mentor role. Hopefully Lee relished in the success of this film and the influence he had over it, receiving the highest praise possible for any adaption: the author, Dennis Wheatley, was incredibly happy with the movie.
3. The Wicker Man (1973)
It is undeniable that Christopher Lee owes much of his fame and success to Hammer Productions, but this association was a double-edged sword as Lee did find himself on the receiving end of type-casting, leading to a dry spell of roles alongside the eventual decline of British Horror in the 1970s. However, it is thanks to this association that Lee got a role in a film that was part of Britain’s last horror hurrah within the genre considered “folk horror”. Oddly ironic, as The Wicker Man turned out to be an almost antithesis to the normal Hammer output.
Beloved as they are, classic Hammer Horrors have undeniably aged. There is no argument about their entertainment value, but any hardcore fan may struggle to convince casual viewers that these films are serious horrors with the capability to frighten modern audiences. For most, they will be seen as previous milestones in horror history, now fondly remembered and enjoyed for their camp quality. However, the same cannot be said for The Wicker Man. Nearly five decades on this film still holds the power to make the blood run cold through its creepiness alone, and continues to be an impactful watch.
The plot of The Wicker Man is focused on Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a police officer from the Scottish mainland who has come to the far-off British island of Summerisle to investigate the anonymously submitted case of a missing child. It doesn’t take long for the unease to set in during the beginning of his investigation as the odd behaviour of the islanders strays upon the outright unnerving.
The islanders flat-out deny the existence of the missing girl Rowan Morrison even though it quickly becomes obvious the girl was a citizen of the community; her own mother seems to be in on the act and even after her lies are exposed, she remains completely unfazed at her daughter’s potential peril. When Howie finds a place to stay for the night (as the answers he needs are not forthcoming), this curious behaviour accumulates as the apparent moral corruption of the entire island. As the innkeeper (Lindsay Kemp) directs his daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), to show our hero to his room, the entire pub bursts into song paying homage to the woman’s… easiness.
“But I sing of the baggage that we all adore, the Landlord’s daughter.”
The assault upon Howie’s strict Christian sensibilities doesn’t stop there. In an attempt to quell his disgust by taking in the night air, he is met with the sight of countless couples partaking in an orgy on the village green.
50 years on, you would expect the film to have lost some of its impact: after all the struggle of sexual liberation has made leaps and bounds since the film’s release and, likewise, within this globalised and multi-cultural society the doctrines of Christianity hold less importance to many potential audiences (or are completely irrelevant to them). However, the depicted paganism in The Wicker Man not only defies logic and scientific truth, it seems to be in total rejection of human decency. The most liberal of individuals would still struggle not to be shocked by the portrayal of children being taught the veneration of the image of the human penis. Even those of the post-truth persuasion would struggle to reconcile the medieval practices to their alternative worldview, particularly the heinous concept of human sacrifice.
It is Christopher Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle, the ultimate authority on the island, that is integral to the outrage caused by The Wicker Man, the Lord being one of the most complex villains Lee ever portrayed. He is chilling but not maniacal, one of the British nobility but utterly left-field, a pagan but also a man of science.
Lord Summerisle explains his rule over the island to Howie via the story of his grandfather: the Victorian entrepreneur brought prosperity to the previously miserable sheep-farming community by persuading the islanders to grow and harvest his newly bred varieties of fruit that could withstand the harsh Scottish climate. The initial work before the harvest was difficult, so the islanders were placated by encouraging worship to the old Gods to ensure a good harvest. The hugely successful harvest led to an enthusiastic conversion of the entire community, causing the last Christian Ministers to flee from the island. Thus, the Summerilse family line continued in the practice of paganism, leading to the enigma that is Lee’s Lord Summerisle and his clouded motivations.
The nobleman is clearly very aware that the island’s previously bountiful harvests are the result of his Grandfather’s scientific research and development (whilst possibly the rest of the island are left in the dark) and so must suspect the solution to the current failed harvest would lie in further scientific endeavour. So, does he believe in the ancient doctrines of the old gods or is this all manipulation and deception for his own personal gain? The film’s devastating climax proves he is capable of enormous manipulation and even murder, but throughout the film he is seen to be personally delighting in the island’s religious practices whilst harbouring disgust towards Christianity, readily pointing out Howie’s religious hypocrisies:
“I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.”
Thus is the enigmatic nature of Lord Summerisle that leads to much of the film’s horror. Is he a dutiful community leader doing what he must do as dictated by his hugely misguided faith to save his island from disaster, regardless of the cost? Or is he a greedy tyrant that struggles to survive through manipulation, who would easily use children and innocent men as human shields to save himself from the violent and lustful mob of his own creation, furious over their destitution? Either conclusion is truly terrifying, and it is through the sheer talent of Christopher Lee and his masterful performance that the true nature of Lord Summerisle remains a mystery.
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To conclude, The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle is another Christopher Lee villain that will be immortalised by the eternal praises of movie fans long into the future. A blessing or a curse, Lee’s type-casting was bestowed upon him because no one else’s villains could so effectively steal a scene (or rather a whole film) in such unmissable performances.