Christopher DeLEEful Films!
By Kristin Battestella
How does one choose the best or most beloved pictures from Sir Christopher Lee’s extensive film repertoire? Short answer: you can’t. Long answer: I’m going to try a batch of my horror favorites here!
Horror of Dracula – Well, well. Director Terence Fisher is here again for the one that started it all! Even with little dialogue, Lee is tall and imposing, his stature and glare deadly and delightful. Appearing a half hour into the film, top billed Peter Cushing as Van Helsing is also simply badass. There are unique changes to the tale from Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Frankenstein) of course, with library scholar Harker engaged to Lucy and more character switcharoos. Dracula is also decidedly styled as an English gentleman yet the story never leaves Central Europe. This also doesn’t look 1958 as we expect from the Leave It to Beaver types. Yes, it’s bright and colorfully filmed in the style of the time, but this Dracula is dark, gothic, and feels earnest, passionate, deadly. There’s something so nasty about the way Lucy opens the door, removes her cross, lays out, and unbuttons the nightgown! All the staples- stakes, garlic, candles, coffins- are here; everything we expect a proper vampire tale to be twists together with great deception and scares. Hot damn!
Horror Hotel – This 1960 low budget scary also called The City of the Dead opens with a 1692 good and wicked burning at the stake and it only gets freakier from there. Yes, it looks a little poor in quality, is too dark sometimes, and the hep cat guys are a dime a dozen. The fog and flickering firelight, however, add heaps of disturbia, and we just know this sinister- er sleepy hamlet isn’t what it seems. Investigating ingénue Venetia Stevenson (Island of Lost Women) is a sunny and fun fish out of water we can get behind as she blindly plunges deeper into the Massachusetts bizarre. Sir Christopher is of course smashing as a deathly serious but young and oh so suave professor who knows his witchcraft history too well. Even in the seemingly forgotten 80 minutes here, his contribution is essential, his performance quintessential. Toss in a swanky score and you have all the brewing ingredients needed for future Amicus Productions’ horror gems. Who knew?
Dracula: Prince of Darkness – This Terence Fisher helmed 1966 sequel opens with a revisit to his Horror of Dracula and adds fun Victorian via sixties ladies, freaky servant Philip Latham (The Pallisers), action monk Andrew Kier (Cleopatra), candlelit ambiance, and sweet velvet décor. There’s actually a touch of the novel as well, with hints of Renfield and visiting English twists- except our Carpathian guests are two couples this time around. Barbara Shelley (also of The Gorgon) makes a great scaredy cat who would be annoying except that we know somebody should take heed in a vampire picture! Besides, it’s always the good girls like Suzan Farmer (Die, Monster, Die!) who go so bad for Dracula! Even though we know a resurrection ritual is coming, it’s still bloody impressive- literally and figuratively. There’s a great sense of foreboding fear with scary music as Lee silently hypnotizes and takes the dames as he wills in what seems like less than 10 minutes! I know he did some of these films under protest and had conflicts over the dialogue, but Dracula need not speak to be badass either. OMC’s great strength, overbearing physicality, and evil red eyes more than fit the terror bill. It’s actually fitting that there are no wither tos and why fors- just a silent, powerful, unstoppable menace. We don’t have outright nudity or such for this round, but the vamp approach and violation works.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave – A sweet, bloody, almost Bond-esque introduction and a fun opening shocker lead off the revenge plotting, suspenseful carriage chases, surprising character development, saucy bedroom scenes, religious twists, and rooftop pursuits in this 1968 sequel. Whew! It’s quite intriguing to for once see what would possibly happen after Bram, as we instead focus on Monsieur Rupert Davies (Maigret), priest Ewan Hopper (Julius Caesar), and the terrified village folk who all still live in the shadow of Big C. We actually see more of Lee as Dracula earlier on in the film, and this time he even speaks! Well, it’s only about dozen lines and we still don’t really have enough of the eponymous villain, but Sir Christopher has more to do here. Dracula is quite sensual and kinky; all these necks and bosoms just thrust right at him! Though filmed well, the production values seem a step down from the usual Hammer high style, and the women seem a little too sixties designed instead of the late Victorian onscreen. Young Barry Andrews (Blood on Satan’s Claw) is also too hepcat annoying, as is bad girl Barbara Ewing (Torture Garden) to start- but we know Dracula will educate her- a bite, a beat down, a catfight! Yes, the titular revival is a little preposterous, but its also pretty creative- even if the vampire rules, times, and places established in the first two films are fudged up. The horror sound effects are great, along with impressively eerie green glow effects and colored lens tricks. It does indeed look like death here!
The Devil’s Bride – Frequent Hammer director Terrence Fisher (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) helms this elusive 1968 satanic fest in which Christopher Lee is the good guy. Whoa. Let’s just take in that power of performance right there. One of his personal film favorites, Lee ups the ante- using all his coy, charisma, and stature for the occult heroics and parental considerations here. He looks damn classy, and Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever) is dynamite as well. Two Bond villains for the price of one- that has to be worth a look! Leon Greene (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) as Big C’s sidekick starts out as a little stereotypical chum chum disbelieving cheerio, but he takes up the cause wonderfully- though I don’t really understand why an English guy was dubbed for an English movie? The thirties via sixties style is also suave: sweet roadsters and English country car chases, cool suits, and great frocks all around. Sigh, candlestick phones! We have genuine frights, smart mystery, and fun cloak and dagger action along with great color and decent, scary effects. If the eyes are the window to the soul indeed…shudder. Though I’m not sure of the actual details, the rituals are realistic and the occult material is intelligently handled for a dang good time. Now if only the DVD- also titled The Devil Rides Out – wasn’t so damn tough to find!
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)– Well, in this Hammer’s fifth Dracula themed film, Big C has a sweet intro tying into his previous entry, 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The occult circumstances leading to Dracula’s resurrection here are also lovely horror treats- creepy organ music, lightning crackles, and bright red oh so delightfully fake blood! Even if Lee only has about a dozen mostly one-word lines, he’s still enchanting, suave, and lays on the kinky with Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and Isla Blair (Battle of Britain). What can I say; he knows how to dominate a picture! While this outing suffers a little bit from lack of other stars- it’s tough to enjoy all these Brit blokes who all seem the same- the Victorian flavor, gore, and underlying cheeky are just right. So what if the cult rituals in the titular quest are over the top. You can read into all the blood, life, and naughty symbolism if you want, but Taste is also a lot of fun; everything we expect in a good old midnight movie. I do grant that the plastic gardens are hokey, but I like that something special and stage-like intimacy where nothing but a good cape, red eyes, and pimpin’ fangs are needed.
Scars of Dracula – Roy Ward Baker (The Vampire Lovers) takes the helm for this 1970 entry in the Hammer series once again starring Christopher Lee as the eponymous count. The plot kind of sort of picks up from Taste the Blood of Dracula with the pre-requisite resurrection in the first few moments and sets the mood with booming orchestration, outdoor scenery, wild carriages, and cool castle interiors accented by red décor and bloody, pecked, and stabbed victims. Yes, the period design is cheap and the plot standard – a young village girl is attacked, angry townsfolk and the clergyman head off for Dracula’s known lair, one person doesn’t heed said village’s advice, a couple pursues him to the castle… The tale starts several times and takes too long with seemingly random players before the vamp action, and most of this set up could have been abandoned for an in medias res cold open. Expected series inconsistencies and a plodding lack of panache detract from the Stoker touches, but Lee looks good, mixing both violent and torturous intensity with suave and delicate mannerisms. From casual dining and conversations to a seductive vampire bride and slightly hokey bat control, Lee has much more to do with these developments, and it’s wonderfully creepy. Likewise, Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) is a seedy, hairy, hatchet wielding, and conflicted henchman. Though the nudity and bed hopping are a little more risqué, there could have been more and subtitles would clarify a lot! Yes, it’s somewhat typical with nothing new on the vampire theme, but Lee’s presence anchors the spooky iconography here.
Dracula A.D. 1972 – Numero 7 brings Dracula back once again-and this time, the titular year is where all the juice happens with Stephanie Beacham (The Colbys) and Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me). The swanky scoring is a lot of fun, but director Alan Gibson (also of the follow up Satanic Rites of Dracula) wastes time on dated onscreen band performances. We don’t need lengthy 1972 establishing, and the now retro styles would have look cool old school if they weren’t so dang garish. We poke fun at the psychedelic, sure, but imagine how ugly current slasher horror films brimming with kids in the latest fashions are going to look in 40 years! The annoying hepcats wannabes here make things too bad English; Scream and Scream Again does the formula just a little bit better. Thankfully, Peter Cushing’s return as Grandpa Van Helsing is classier and action pimpin’ then all of the little boys put together! Of course, things kick up when Lee is resurrected and Cushing takes up the fight, but who knew Dracula was down with the swirl? Pity he is only in a reluctant handful of scenes with another dozen obligatory lines.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula – This direct sequel and number eight in the Hammer Dracula cannon sticks to the contemporary designs from its 1972 predecessor with more faux Bondian opening titles, breasts, and bad zooms. Though the sets and scenery are a little bland, drab, and not as colorful as the previous outing, the blood, kinky vampire brides, and disturbing rituals get all the horror across just fine. It’s also neat to see tapes, slides, and old style investigations instead of high tech CSI. The modern spy angle and same old Scotland Yard inspectors are, however, a little ho-hum in overtaking the expected vampness. Van Helsing’s credentials change to fit the themes here, but PC is still sweet- slapping people around to get his answers and taking long contemplative drags on his cigarette. Big C commands a lot of attention with his strong, distinctive voice and speech, yet his silent and brutal sweeping in and conquering works in his handful of scenes here. There’s something so sensual about not always seeing the actual taking bite, just the fear before and the deadly euphoria after. Yes, perhaps the ‘spies saving England from vampires’ plot might not always work, but the latent lesbian vampire action and orgasmic stakings go a long way for old school male audiences.
To the Devil a Daughter – Though it may look old, this 1976 satanic thriller boasts a great cast- including reluctant occult expert Richard Widmark (Cheyenne Autumn), juicy dame Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), unaware but not so young and innocent would be nun Nastassja Kinski (Cat People), and fearing for the err of his ways Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Now then, let’s top all that off with a downright frightening Big C, too! This one is very bizarre to start; the rituals are totally kinky, and the intentions are absolutely disturbing. Lee’s Father Michael is even scarier than his Dracula- perhaps because he is a real soulless man of flesh with such a wicked, wicked agenda. Yes, the ending is a little flat- resorting to abstract demon talk and psychedelic colors after all that great intelligence and paranoia. But it’s damn good in getting there, and I’m not sure why there’s so little fanfare about this one. I really liked it!