Last week the world of cinema lost arguably one of it's greatest actors with the passing of Sir Christopher Lee. His career is one unmatched by any actor living or dead, spanning nearly seventy years and saw him appear in over 250 films. Lee was at 6'5” one of cinema's tallest lading men and he also held an impressive record of the most on-screen sword fights.
His imposing stature, deep booming voice and chiselled exotic features made him an instant choice to play some of cinema's most memorable villains, including the best James Bond villain in the series as Scaramanga in 1974s 'The Man With The Golden Gun', as well as the sinister Comte de Rochefort in the 'Musketeer' films between 1973 and 1989. Lee's portrayal of Rochefort featured him wearing an eye-patch, which isn't mentioned in Dumas' book, but the role was so iconic it has nevertheless been embraced by film-makers ever since.
In memory of Sir Christopher Lee we return to the genre that made him... horror. And look at his most terrifying roles that scarred our collective consciousness and propelled him to international infamy as the silver screens most identifiable bad guys.
The Creature – 'The Curse OF Frankenstein' (1959)
'The Curse Of Frankenstein' was the role that put Lee on the first rung of international stardom. Playing a damaged marionette-like creature in opposition to his friend Peter Cushing's diabolical Baron Frankenstein, Lee simultaneously imbues a melancholy as well as a malevolence into his character. Lee's creature is simultaneously the dark side of his creator's psyche as well as the result of his genius. Lee sees the creature stripped of his humanity and filled with only the base compulsion to kill. Add to that the grotesque Technicolour visage and the imposing frame on the cinema screen and it makes for a performance you won't forget in a hurry.
Lord Summerisle – 'The Wicker Man' (1973)
'The Wicker Man' is perhaps the finest example of folk horror in British cinema, especially seeing as there is no real horror until the end of the film. Lee's charming a suave Lord Summerisle is calm, reasonable and unshakeable in his conviction. Just as most maniacs think they are doing good, so does Summerisle as he and his people enact their age old rites at the expense of Edward Woodward's Sargent Howie. The plot is a strange one, but unfolds like an odd murder mystery until the final frames when Lee reveals the true nature of Howie's visit to the island. Chilling.
Count Dracula – 'Dracula' Film Series (1958 – 1972)
Of course if there is one character the image of Lee will forever be tied to, it's Dracula. Lee played the count in other films outside of the Hammer franchise, but it is for these titillating and blood-splattered outings that he will always be remembered. And although the film series would see a pronounced drop in quality towards the end of its run, Lee never gave a bad performance. He remained dignified, deadly and always scary. The first instalment though is easily the strongest, and worthy of inclusion on it's own, and features the best death scene in the series. One that is truly the stuff of nightmares!
Saruman – 'The Lord Of The Rings' Film Series (2001 – 2003)
This is the most recent, and the highest grossing series in the list. One that saw Lee draw on a lifetime of villainous roles as well as a life-long love of Tolkien's works. Although this isn't strictly a horror series, the very inclusion of Lee's scenes in the films quickly alter their tone. Lee channels both Dracula and Lord Summerisle into his depiction of the treacherous Saurman The White as he joins forces with the legions of Mordor, breads the demonic Uruk-hai warriors, and duels with Ian McKellen's Gandalf. Despite playing the Wizard in his later years, Lee still brings a gravitas and energy to the role that is captivating
Dr. Fu Manchu – 'Fu Manchu' Film Series (1965 – 1969)
Dr. Fu Manchu has been depicted by many different, and usually white, actors over many different decades. But Lee's full colour films in the late 1960s brought the role to a new generation and subsequently did the round on television for years after. Again, not strictly horror, but the imposing Christopher Lee with his diabolical plans for world domination and destruction are just as unnerving as his final appearance as Dracula where the count attempts to unleash a plague upon the world. Political correctness, notwithstanding, Christopher Lee's turns as Fu Manchu are easily the most memorable in cinema.
Grigori Rasputin – 'Rasputin, The Mad Monk' (1966)
Turning the very real historical character of Russian priest and mystic Grigori Rasputin was easy for Lee. His natural stature, booming voice and fierce eyes brought Rasputin back to life and turned him into a supernatural villain with powers gifted him by the devil. Lee also had a very real connection to Rasputin having met on of his assassins as a child. In the film Lee is wild, and at times seems on the brink of a frenzy, but will suddenly return to a calm and composed demeanour that is rather creepy. This is another character that has one of the most memorable deaths in cinema courtesy of the power of Lee's performance.
Father Michael Rayner – 'To The Devil A Daughter' (1976)
By 1976 Lee was looking further afield for acting opportunities and Hammer as a cinematic powerhouse was on the way out. However, there was still time for one final collaboration. 'To The Devil A Daughter' was the second novel by Dennis Wheatley to be adapted by Hammer after the successful 'The Devil Rides Out'. The film suffered greatly by succumbing to the latter-day formulaic Hammer production and dispensing with a lot of the source material. However Lee as Father Michael Rayner is at his Satanic best with another charismatic but disturbing shadow cast over the entire length of the film.
Count Regula – 'The Blood Demon' (1967)
Whatever name you may have seen this film under, it is one of Lee's most underrated roles. This German production loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Pit And The Pendulum' sees Lee as a bloodthirsty black magician/murderer returned from the dead to complete his plans to become immortal. Lee is chilling as he brings elements of Dracula and Rasputin to the role all the while retaining an aristocratic dignity to the proceedings. It's a shame it isn't more widely appreciated for the atmospheric mix of gothic and gore that it is with Lee's performance tying it all together.
Dr. Charles Marlowe / Edward Blake – 'I, Monster' (1971)
'I, Monster' is another fine pairing of Lee and his friend Peter Cushing, this time set against an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll An Mr. Hyde'. Lee takes on the role of the renamed lead characters and draws on his strengths in portraying the man and the monster. Again as Lee adopts the heavy make up of Edward Blake he easily suspends disbelief as he descends into a murderous rampage. Although the film performed poorly on its initial release, it remains as a testament to both Lee and Cushing as they craft fine gothic presentations throughout the film.
Kharis – 'The Mummy' (1959)
'The Mummy' was the third iconic horror role that Lee took on with Hammer films. Although it wasn't as shocking as 'The Curse Of Frankenstein' and he didn't have the dialogue of 'Dracula', Lee nevertheless captivated as Kharis, and ancient Egyptian priest brought back to life as a tool of death. Lee shows his true stock as a great actor being able to convey everything he needs to with just his eyes for the majority of the film. Although he wouldn't reprise the role in any of the subsequent 'Mummy' films by Hammer, his performance left a high bench mark that has yet to be surpassed.
That was our run-down of favourite terrifying outings from the late and very great Sir Christopher Lee. It's by no means exhaustive and certainly doesn't begin to touch on his other roles as both a villain and good guy, whether in horror or not. But these are certainly classics that any fan should watch. And we hope you do.