And Now The Screaming Starts! #3 – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature
Six of the Best: Christopher Lee
There are a great many actors who graced the silver and small screen over the latter half of the twentieth century who cut their teeth on, and often made their name known thanks to, fleeting or regular roles in the films of Hammer Productions – the unforgettable Ingrid Pitt, the irreplaceable Peter Cushing and the legendary Oliver Reed to name a few – but there is one actor whose name was and still is utterly synonymous with ‘Hammer’, despite him having starred a massive number of films over his career produced by countless other studios and companies. That actor is, of course, Sir Christopher Lee. A year on from his death last June at the grand old age of 93, I felt it fitting this time around to cast an eye over a selection of his Hammer roles and explore how some of the varied films his work for Hammer propelled him to fame and went on to mould him as an actor – not to mention his contribution to the development of the company itself as his talent thrived over the decades.
I’m not necessarily suggesting in my selection of the six films that follow that they are his six best ever roles, for Hammer or otherwise, or indeed the six best Hammers he starred in, but I pick them more as a showcase of the range of parts he developed over time and variety of horror sub-genres he was able to explore through the company. I believe he starred in a total of 19 Hammer films (could be wrong!) spanning four separate decades so it’s hard at any rate to whittle down which part he played best or which film was the most enjoyable! Personal preferences aside, I invite both the discerning Hammer nut and novice to simply kick back and chew over these six outings, each made by one great British institution and starring another…
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘The Creature’
Though best known for playing the first fanged fiend of literature, Lee’s first ever film under the Hammer banner (and one of the company’s first releases) saw him play a different yet no-less well-known ‘monster’ – Frankenstein’s, no less. The Hammer interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale also featured Peter Cushing as the titular Baron, pairing the two actors in a picture together for the very first time and heralding the beginning of probably the most well-known and enduring lifelong friendships in cinema. Christopher Lee was cast because of his towering height (which ironically had seen him strike out with many acting roles before this in favour of shorter actors), and also because he had some experience in the field of mime.
He certainly brings this skill to the fore in his first Hammer flick, all at once convincing the viewer of the Creature’s melancholy, confusion and silent rage, even under the thick layers of make-up artist Phil Leakey’s corpse-like mask. Six further films starring the Baron were to follow from Hammer, yet this would be the only one to star Christopher Lee. What makes ‘Curse’ so special is, aside from simply being Lee’s first Hammer role, it can be argued that it ‘kicked off’ proper the company’s brand success as it was both commercially and critically successful, proving Hammer to be a film production force to be reckoned with and firmly kick-starting the long and highly prestigious career of one of Britain’s best-loved actors.
The Horror of Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Count Dracula’
Of course, this one has to be included in this particular line-up – Sir Christopher’s first time playing the Count for Hammer! Appearing the year after ‘Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ (or ‘Horror of Dracula’) introduced us to Lee’s definitive Lord of the Undead amidst huge box office takings for the time and some derision on grounds of good taste from the then critics. Lee is simply perfect for the role and it is no wonder he was picked for it – the character of Dracula calls for charm, reticence, anguish and pure aggression in equal measure and he displays all these qualities in spades. The film itself, loosely re-telling the Stoker narrative, is still an essential horror watch today – an enjoyable thrill-fest and visually sumptuous, and it features a fabulous ending with decent special effects (fantastic for the 50’s!), understated acting from Lee even during a sequence that could easily be heavy on the ham, and of course the first of many quality Lee/Cushing death grapples!
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’
Another Hammer spin on a classic novel (and like so many early Hammer classics, directed by Terence Fisher), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous case of all brought us Christopher Lee as the distinguished heir to the Baskerville fortune. ‘Baskervilles’ is not only one of the stronger early Hammer films, establishing Peter Cushing as one of the more memorable Sherlocks and with Andre Morell’s Watson providing stalwart support alongside one of literature’s best-loved mysteries – it also gave Lee the chance to spread his wings a little and show audiences that he could play the good guy just as well as the villain or monster, even almost your average Joe (landowning and Beagle fancying aside). Lee takes command of every frame he’s in as he did in any role, but as Sir Henry he was able to try his hand at a somewhat more vulnerable character, falling in ill-advised love with a Spanish servant’s daughter and although no wimp, still under threat of murder from an unknown and possibly supernatural force.
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968, Dir. Freddie Francis) – ‘Count Dracula’
Leaping ahead to the late sixties, Sir Christopher reprised his role as the vampire (and went on to do so another six times, five of which were for Hammer), now thawed out from his frozen demise a year previous and bent on a rampage of mayhem and revenge. With Ewan Hooper’s tormented priest under his hypnotised thrall, the Count plans to take revenge on the Monseigneur who exorcised his castle whilst he lay frozen by preying on his sweet daughter Marie (Veronica Carlson). Lee’s vampire has more interaction here with the living and seems more willing to get his hands dirty with a spot of coffin-robbing and public house basement squatting (even the undead have to move with the times). While the film did not impress on the same scale as its predecessor, ‘Grave’ is still a strong Dracula film, featuring a fantastically ghoulish opening, and Sir Christopher is once more effortlessly imposing, continuing to terrify and enthral audiences with his chilling performance as the Count.
To the Devil a Daughter (1976, Dir. Peter Sykes) – ‘Father Michael Rayner’
“Excommunicate – it is not heresy, and I will not recant!”
The vitriolic opening words, spoken by Lee as disgraced priest Father Michael Rayner, of what was to be Hammer’s final horror film before the company ceased producing films in 1979. The innocent young nun Catherine Beddows (Natasha Kinski) has been raised within Fr Rayner’s religious order in Bavaria, all seemingly above board, but the unsuspecting girl does not realise that Rayner is in fact leader of a highly dangerous religious sect which worships the ancient God Astaroth, and they plan to use her as the Devil’s representative on Earth once she turns eighteen. I choose this one plain and simple for Lee’s performance – the film itself was not a particular commercial or critical success, and thoroughly displeased Dennis Wheatley, the author of the book the film was (ultimately loosely) based on 1968’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (Hammer’s previous film based on a novel by Wheatley) was much more successful, and Christopher Lee turns in an equally respectable performance as the Duc de Richleau in it, however the sheer unsettling, total creepiness Lee brings forth as Fr Rayner still makes this Satanic horror film worth a look.
Lee is simply fantastic, oozing malice as he performs Satanic magic on his lackeys and doing a fine job of making the evil priest seem just pleasant enough on the surface – proving that even after working with Hammer by this point for nearly twenty years, he could still bring a character to life with utter conviction and curdle the blood of a whole new generation of filmgoers.
The Resident (2011, Dir. Antti Jokinen) – ‘August’
“I will always be grateful to Hammer for launching my international career as an actor. Like millions of others, I would welcome the day when the company resumes production.” *
And resume it fittingly did, in what would be the last few years of the actor’s long life, and what a pleasure it was for fans of this movie legend to see him collaborate with the resurrected company once more. In this first film from its new incarnation, we see Hammer take on a form of ‘stalker/home invasion’ horror, with Hilary Swank’s Juliet Devereaux falling foul of the affections of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s obsessed landlord Max. In what would be his final Hammer performance, Sir Christopher plays a small part (he was 89 by this point to be fair, and only a few years prior was heavy involved with various factions of both the Orc and Sith type!) as Max’s frail yet clearly emotionally abusive grandfather, August. Despite the short screen time, Lee keeps us guessing about August’s character, turning up in jump scares to unsettle, unintentionally or not, both Juliet and the audience, and leads us to suspect he may pose more of a threat to her safety than his grandson ever could…
So there you have it – a look back at a few of Lee’s Hammer roles and a reminder of one of the great cinematic partnerships of blossoming film production company and favoured ‘go-to’ actor, symbiotically launching and at times upholding each other’s success. And what an unbelievable talent the man was, both as a Hammer actor and in his near uncountable other acting credits – he is quoted as once saying “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr Lee, I’ve seen all your films!’ and I think, ‘No you haven’t.’”
He kicked ass for real in his 20’s in the RAF and Special Forces and kicked cinematic butt of various kinds as an nonogenarian. I’ve often thought that if (when?) a film-maker ever wanted to film a biography of his life, who would play the man himself – not to deride today’s current actors, but which actor today has the equal stature, presence and level of film and life experience?
There’ll never be another quite like him.
* = from the Foreword to ‘The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer’ by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes