Christopher Lee: No More Back From The Dead
They may have to bang a stake into this one to keep him down. As you age you get to watch your band of heroes dwindle. Lee was never a hero as such – he adopted rather too much of a (baritone) one-note in his performances – but he was certainly a powerful part of my adolescence, partly because he was so perfectly balanced by the urbane, amused Peter Cushing.
As I wrote in ‘Paperboy’, I saw every single one of Hammer’s period horror films in the cinema, even the tatty ‘murderous she-moth’ flick The Blood Beast Terror. The mystique of Hammer remained because their grand sets and full-blooded performances distanced them from surrounding shockers. In the same way that gentlemanly Kenneth Horne could make smutty jokes on Round The Horne over the Sunday roast beef and get away with it, the Hammer regulars could star in bloody set-pieces without appearing to be slumming because Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were smart and mature, and I felt comfortable placing trust in them. They wore ties and spoke nicely. They were like my father.
All the other parts were played by a gallery of Dickensian character actors including Thorley Walters, Francis Matthews and Michael Ripper, who lent gravitas to the duffest dialogue lines. Ripper was usually cast as a Transylvanian inn-keeper, and bizarrely chose a West Country accent to deliver his lines, crying ‘You’m bain’t be goin’ up to Carstle Draaakler tonoight!’ And this was the point. Hammer films weren’t set in Bavaria or Lichenstein or Transylvania, they were set in England and they were about the English, only nobody could see it at the time. It was an England that was soon to fade from view.
The early Hammer femmes fatales were maternal sexy types who wore nightgowns apparently made of heavy sailcloth. One of them, Jenny Hanley, was a presenter of the children’s TV show Magpie, so it was probably illegal to have carnal thoughts about her. Hammer soon lost the courage of its convictions and presented risible versions of ‘young people’ on the screen, of whom blond-locked, caterpillar-eyebrowed Shane Bryant was the most appalling.
The company’s decline was perhaps the result of a growing disillusionment among young people who were beginning to choose more morally ambiguous, cynical ideas over straight battles between good and evil. Eventually, when compared to the RP-spouting ‘teens’ of the King’s Road, Christopher Lee’s Dracula came to appear like a reasonable father figure. Check out this trailer for ‘Dracula: AD72’, retitled and dragged out to interminable length by Warner Brothers, who’ve slapped a huge logo on it despite the fact that they only distributed it in the US. She was a game gal, that Stephanie Beacham!
Lee had his finest moment in ‘The Wicker Man’, the antithesis of a traditional Hammer horror. Filled with folk-tunes, sunshine and light, flowers, earth myths and mysticism, it presented Pagan worshippers as level-headed and attractive people, while Edward Woodward’s painfully upright Christian copper was a humourless and prescriptive killjoy. The island of Summerisle’s determination to worship the old gods seemed desirable and even sensible, throwing Woodward into relief as an emotionally frozen God-botherer who got a well-deserved come-uppance.
For a long time it seemed that Lee was keen to distance himself from his horror output, but that’s understandable – when you do any one thing for too long it gets to be a label you can’t shake off. Lee is almost the last of the icons that featured in my childhood; he was a reminder that the UK once had a proud history of fantastic cinema – it makes our loss all the greater.