Thursday, June 18, 2015


Christopher Lee was the last of them.

Fans of classic horror movies will know who I mean by “them.” First there was Lugosi, then Karloff, then Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine, and around midcentury came the rise of Vincent Price, and then, more or less starting with the same 1957 movie, came Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Some might exclude Carradine from the list, and some might include, say, Peter Lorre or Lionel Atwill. But essentially I think that these seven guys—Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney Jr., Carradine, Cushing and Lee—represent the true superstars of old-school, classic horror in English-language talkies.

And now they’ve all passed on.

Of course when Lee and Cushing became horror stars, with Hammer’s ’57 Curse of Frankenstein and the following year with Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in the U.S.), they didn’t seem old-school, but rather new-wave, with Hammer’s amped-up gore and cleavage, usually in lurid color. But within a decade or so, Hammer and its stars and style and imitators had been fully admitted to the canon of horror as Boomer-era, Famous Monsters of Filmland-reading fans would recognize it.

Lee, who started as a movie actor shortly after his WWII service (he was an uncredited spear-carrier in Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet) and who even made a couple of movies with Karloff—he played the grave-robber Resurrection Joe in the Karloff chiller Corridors of Blood—never really faded away. Though still probably most remembered for playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy and many other scary parts in the Hammer and other British films of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Lee remained relevant as a character actor until his death, at 93, earlier this month, appearing in The Wicker Man and The Man With the Golden Gun and Airport ‘77 and in the title role of the Pakistani biopic Jinnah, and in the Star Wars movies and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and Tim Burton’s flicks and TV miniseries and video game voices and so on.

For my birthday this year I got The Christopher Lee Collection, a pretentiously-titled DVD box set featuring four fairly low-rent films Lee made for producer Harry Allen Towers, three of them directed by Spanish sleazemaster Jesus “Jess” Franco. So I recently caught up with Lee in two ‘70s quickies I’d never seen before—The Castle of Fu Manchu and a tawdry historical melodrama called The Bloody Judge. They’re terrible movies, but the star is effortlessly authoritative in both of them.

In 1970’s The Bloody Judge (hilariously retitled Night of the Blood Monster for the U.S. market) Lee plays an actual historical figure, the original “Hanging Judge” George Jeffreys, who notoriously presided over the treason trials after England’s Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. Franco’s version of this story is full of quite unsavory violence and sexual exploitation, but there in the middle of it is Lee, trying his best to give a textured performance as the haughty but conscience-haunted Jeffreys. This was his fate throughout much of his long career, and he seemed good-humoredly resigned to it.


Monster-of-the-Week: Obviously Lee should get the nod this week, but which of his roles to choose? For a lot of fans, there would be no contest; many regard him as the greatest screen Dracula of all time. I’m a Lugosi loyalist myself, but there’s no doubt of the sexual charisma and imposing physical threat Lee brought the role, even when, as was most of the time in the Hammer Dracula films, he was ridiculously underused—in 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness he doesn’t even say a word in his beautiful deep rumble, and in several of the others he speaks only a handful of lines.

So let’s acknowledge him, this time, for the title role in Count Dracula

…a low-budget 1970 non-Hammer production, again produced and written by Towers and directed by Franco. It’s not an entirely successful film by a long shot, but it allowed Lee to play the Count as he had long wanted to, in a manner highly faithful to Stoker’s novel.

RIP, sir. You’ll be missed.


  1. And let it not be forgotten that he became a heavy metal singer in his 90s!

  2. And let it not be forgotten that he became a heavy metal singer in his 90s!

  3. Indeed let it not be forgotten! If he'd hung around very much longer, they would probably have had him doing hip hop, too...