Remembering Sir Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015): Four Wonderful Performances – By Philip Smolen

One of the problems associated with aging is that the heroes you worshipped when you were young inevitably grow old and pass on, further reminding you of just how old you’re getting. These champions, no matter if they were movie stars, sports figures, rock stars or even politicians (gasp!), will always hold a special place in your heart and when they die, your own world can become much darker and colder. Sure their memory, achievements and their brilliance still invigorate your soul, but the fact that they are no longer part of your world is one of the great tragedies in life and you mourn their passing.

So, like millions of other movie lovers, my world darkened considerably last month with the passing of movie star and horror icon Sir Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015).  Long admired as one of the great horror film stars, Sir Christopher was fortunate to have experienced a cinematic rebirth over the last 30 years when the children who flocked to see his Hammer and Amicus terror flicks in the 1960s and 1970s became directors themselves and asked him to appear in their films. From Tim Burton and Joe Dante to Peter Jackson and George Lucas, film makers steeped in the great Hammer horror tradition called to pay homage to this great man. Overwhelmed by the love showered on him by these film industry giants and the movie going public, Sir Christopher continued to turn in marvelous, textured performances all the way into his 90s.

But I will always remember Sir Christopher’s iconic horror movie performances. Despite the limitations of time and budget, he created wonderful characters that have stood the passage of time. So to honor the passing of this amazing man, I am offering to everyone at Rogue Cinema four of my favorite Sir Christopher Lee performances.

1.THE MUMMY (1959, Hammer Studios) – Director: Terence Fisher

In 1895 a British expedition comes to Egypt to explore the great pyramids. It is led by Sir Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), his brother Joseph (Raymond Huntley) and his son John (Peter Cushing). The trio is searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka. After several false starts, Sir Stephen believes that he has found the right site. John suffers a freak accident and breaks his leg and must remain at their camp. At the tomb entrance, Banning and his brother are confronted by Mehemet Akir (George Pastell) who warns them that they will incur a great curse if they proceed. Banning is determined and brushes Pastell away. In the tomb the explorer finds the scroll of life and while reading it, gives life to the mummified remains of Kharis (Sir Christopher Lee), a priest of Ananka who secretly loved her. Banning goes mad and Pastell enters and removes the mummy and the scroll. Several years later in England, Pastell appears, and along with Kharis, is determined to make the Banning family pay for their desecration. However he is not aware that John’s wife (Yvonne Furneaux) looks exactly like Kharis’s long lost love.

Of their first three Universal remakes, Hammer’s The Mummy remains my favorite. It possesses a wonderful pace and its energy doesn’t wane for a second. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster weaves a smashing tale of conceited British adventurers who incur a terrible curse when they trespass on sacred ground and fail to heed George Pastell’s warning. The team led by Felix Alymer (as Cushing’s father), and Raymond Huntley (as Cushing’s uncle) are all proper British bluster and pomposity, and their arrogance costs them their lives. Only Cushing realizes that the curse is real, and his willingness to accept it allows him to live and destroy it. Cushing is great (as always), but the real star here is Sir Christopher as the lovelorn Kharis. He brings real complexity to the mummy. He’s not the slow moving, shuffling, rag-covered mummy of the 1940s. He’s an unstoppable physical force who will let nothing stand in his way of reclaiming his true love (Yvonne Furneaux). My favorite scene is when Lee pays his first visit to Cushing. He crashes through Cushing’s heavy wooden front doors as if they were paper, promptly strangles Huntley and then moves in to kill Cushing. Despite the archeologist’s best efforts (including shooting and ramming a fireplace poker through Lee), Cushing finds himself slowly being choked to death. He is only saved when Furneaux enters and screams. When Kharis sees the reincarnation of his love, he becomes helpless. Sir Christopher’s eyes are amazing. They immediately change from anger and rage to longing and they reveal the extent of his undying love for Furneaux. It is an incredible scene and a true indication of just how good an actor Lee was. This was Sir Christopher’s final ‘monster’ performance and he knocks it out of the park. Featuring a standout cast of supporting players (Pastell, Eddie Byrne, and the always wonderful Michael Ripper), The Mummy was a highpoint for Hammer horror.

Quotable Movie Line: There’s something evil in there, Uncle Joe – I’ve felt it!”

2. RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK (1966, Hammer Studios) – Director: Don Sharp

In Czarist Russia, holy man Grigori Yefimovivh Rasputin (Sir Christopher Lee) tires of following the church’s way. That’s because Rasputin is a slave to all human vices, especially drinking and casual sex. After causing an incident in a local village, he travels to St. Petersburg where he meets Sonia (the beautiful Barbara Shelly) a lady in waiting for the wife of the Czar (Renee Asherson). Hypnotizing Sonia, Rasputin arranges for Sonia to injure Tsarina’s only son and then call for the monk. Blindly following his bidding, Sonia pushes the little boy onto a frozen lake and then tells Tsarina about Rasputin. The mad monk makes a grand entrance and places his hands on the boy and cures him. Tsarina is overwhelmed and promises Rasputin anything he wants. Drunk with power, the monk tosses Sonia aside and has her kill herself while setting his sights on Lady Vanessa (Suzan Farmer). When told of Rasputin’s actions, Sonia’s brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen) sneaks in to the monk’s estate to kill him. But the holy man is lying in wait and throws acid in the young man’s face. Seeking revenge, Peter’s friend Ivan (Francis Mathews) conspires with Rasputin’s accomplice to assassinate him. But the crazed clergyman is nearly impossible to kill and a long bloody battle ensues before the madman finally dies.

Branching out into historical drama, Rasputin, the Mad Monk was a serious change of pace for Hammer studios. The problem was that what was known about Rasputin wasn’t very interesting except for his death by poisoning by members of the Czar’s court. So the entire movie’s raison d’être is its final five minutes. What comes before is literally 80 minutes of padding. Hammer did its best to spice things up of course. There’s an amputation early on and there’s a fair amount of near nudity (mostly of the scrumptious Barbara Shelly). But it seems to me that Hammer was clueless about how to make this kind of film. The film is saved by Sir Christopher Lee’s powerhouse performance, who was given the role by Hammer studios to thank him for reprising his role as Dracula in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966). Just like his count Dracula, his portrayal of Rasputin is a character defining role. All other performances of the monk must be compared to Lee’s. He plays Rasputin as a guttural piggish lout who only wants women and alcohol. He knows the power he has over women and he uses it blatantly to elevate his status. While the film itself is flawed, Lee’s standout performance successfully showed his capability and range as an actor.

Quotable Movie Line: “Dr. Zigloff! You are speaking about her imperial majesty. Take care or you may lose something more precious than just your job!”

3. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) – Director: Terence Fisher

In 1920’s England, the Duc de Richleau (Sir Christopher Lee) and his friend Rex van Ryn (Patrick Allen) are concerned about the welfare of their friend Simon (Patrick Mower). Upon arriving at his home, the duo finds Simon holding a party for a group of Satanists led by the powerful Mocata (Charles Gray). Simon and a young girl named Tanith (Nike Arrighi) are to be baptized into the cult the next day, but Rex and Richleau infiltrate the ceremony and rescue them both. After several attempts by Mocata to get Simon and Tanith back, Richleau takes everyone (except for Rex and Tanith) to the home of his brother and prepares to do battle with Mocata. The Count draws a pentacle on the floor and gathers everyone into it. They are assaulted all night by the evil minions of Mocata who fail to break the group’s resolve. But Mocata is unrelenting, and since he is unable get to any adult, he spirits away Richleau’s niece and prepares to sacrifice her to Satan. Now Richleau must seek out Mocata and out-duel the devil worshipper.

1968 was a great year for fantastic films. You had many classic released including Planet of the Apes, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Night of the Living Dead and this wonderful cinematic epic on the eternal battle between good and evil. The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer’s most mature films on the topic of malevolence and how the trappings of wealth and power can be used as a tool for corruption. Here evil isn’t a monstrous creature, or an undying entity that can only be defeated by one strong hero. It is a creeping miasma that comes in the shape of a society that thinks itself above everyone else. Evil can only be beaten when good people stand up to it as a unified force and shine the indomitable light of God on it. Richleau gladly takes on Mocata, but he knows that he needs help to save Simon, so he calls on his brother and Rex to assist him. There is much to like in this film. Setting the film in the 1920s was a stroke of genius by screenwriter Richard Matheson. He neatly aligns Richleau’s belief in God with the tools of the industrial revolution (biplanes, automobiles, telephones) while Mocata’s style of devil worship is anchored in the old, dark rituals of the past.  There are great scenes of confrontation including when Simon and Tanith are whisked away by Rex and Richleau just as they are being indoctrinated into Mocata’s society, the scene where Mocata summons up a demon to destroy Richleau and Rex, and the final battle where Richleau and his family must defend themselves against Mocata’s demons with only their sacred circle to protect them. One of the joys of this film is seeing Sir Christopher Lee fight for good. He’s marvelous as a man of action; forthright, brave and always sure of himself. He cuts quite a figure as the Duc and I always wanted to see more films with him as the hero. But the film was a huge flop in America which put the kibosh on that. He could have been a post-modern Van Helsing, traveling the world and cleansing it of all evil. As it stands, The Devil Rides Out is a highpoint for Hammer films during the 1960s. The production team came together to make a classic film that is still held in high regard more than 40 years later.

Quotable Movie Line: “Why it’s the Goat of Mendes – the devil himself!”

4. HORROR EXPRESS (1972, Scotia International) – Director: Eugenio Martin

In 1906 China, anthropologist Alexander Saxton (Sir Christopher Lee) discovers a frozen ancient ape-like creature in a remote Chinese cave. Removing the body, Saxton intends to bring his discovery to London and astound the world. Placing the corpse on the Trans Siberian Express, Saxton is amazed to discover that the creature is not dead, but in fact very much alive. Even worse, the beast is a predatory alien who sucks the memories, emotions and life out of its victims. Convinced that the beast is responsible for the string of murders on the train, Saxton joins forces with his bitter rival Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) to battle the monster. But the beast can hide in virtually anyone and even the presence of a thuggish Cossack (Telly Savalas) and his men does not offer the passengers any protection. It seems that only the forces of science, led by Saxton and Wells will be able to save the day.

One spring day in 1974, I was feeling a little depressed so I decided to cut my college classes for the day and take the New York subway down to mid town Manhattan so I could go to the movies. I wound up going to the Strand Theater where I wound up seeing Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974) and Horror Express (1972). I hated the Warhol film, which depressed me even more, but I was knocked out by Horror Express. I was simply not expecting such a wonderful film. My spirits were so buoyed by the sheer imagination of the film that I went back to my college dorm and proceeded to tell anyone who would listen about this great movie I found. That weekend I went back to see the movie again and took several of my friends with me. I was further surprised several weeks later when the movie appeared on local late night TV!

Horror Express is just a delight. Taking its cue from Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), Horror Express creates its own blend of claustrophobic terror. Director Eugenio Martin squeezes the maximum amount of tension from the script and manages to supply some great set pieces as well. He’s also served well by his two stars, Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee. They are literally a dynamic duo as the join forces to defeat the alien menace. Cushing is properly acerbic and biting, while Lee is blustery and arrogant. However Lee’s character goes through an important psychological change when he realizes that this creature is a devil and that he must be destroyed. The monster silkily and slyly promises to tell Saxon everything about the earth’s history if he will let him go. Saxon is very tempted, but he sides with humanity rather than knowledge. Lee gives a wonderful performance that has a great emotional payoff at the end. That’s one of the reasons why I still love this movie.

Quotable Movie Line: ”Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man, put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?”

Of course Sir Christopher put in many more wonderful performances (see below for a partial list), but these four fill me with unbridled joy. And although I know that I’ll never see him in another new movie, I have over 275 performances of his to search out and enjoy!

Additional Fun Performances By Sir Christopher Lee

1. Horror of Dracula (1958) – Lee adds a wonderful sexual aspect to the eternal bloodsucker!

2. Beat Girl (1960) – Lee is terrifically sleazy as a strip club manager who’s got his horny eye on a young underage girl.

3. The Gorgon (1964) – Although this Hammer film failed, it isn’t because of Lee who gives a subtle and nuanced performance as Professor Karl Meister.

4. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – Lee is a perfect Mycroft!

5. Hannie Caulder (1971) – Lee’s first western. He takes one look at star Raquel Welch and says “She wants to be a man. Never make it.”

6. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) – Lee plays the suave and assured Scaramanga – the man with three nipples!

7. Arabian Adventure (1979) Sir Christopher channels the great Conrad Veit!

8. 1941 (1979) – Just a wonderful crazy performance by Lee as a German U-boat commander who can’t communicate with the Japanese crew.

9. Gremlins 2 – The New Batch (1990) Lee plays the wacky geneticist Dr. Catheter who proclaims “All a man wants is some fresh germs.”

Selected References

Johnson, Tom and Miller, Mark. The Christopher Lee Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2004.

Miller, Mark. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema; A Filmography of their 22 Collaboration. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1995.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s: Volume 1. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002.

Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009.

Pohle Jr., Robert W. and Hart, Douglas C. The Films of Christopher Lee. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1983.