Christopher Lee: No More Back From The Dead

Film

Lee

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.

9 comments on “Christopher Lee: No More Back From The Dead”

  1. keith page says:

    The inspiration for Oscar Kasavian , I believe

  2. Jeffman says:

    Wasn’t ‘The Blood Beast Terror’ a Tigon production? And has anybody ever seen Shane Briant and Queen’s Roger Taylor in the same room together?

  3. dave says:

    He will be missed, a great character … and from what I understand, a very nice guy as well.

  4. Jo W says:

    RIP Sir Christopher Lee. The world has lost another ‘great’. I am sad

  5. John Griffin says:

    Unlike so many actors today, those of Lee’s generation (mostly) saw war action and knew what real horror was. Simply an icon.

  6. Gaz says:

    Lee and Cushing were two of my childhood heroes, ever since I saw the 1958 Dracula at the impressionable age of 7. Lee was nearly always the villain, but he managed to give them a humanity that almost got you rooting for them (his one go at THE MUMMY has a heartbreaking moment when he reaches out to the looky-likey version of his long-lost love, only for his head and arms to sag as he realises that he’s now nothing but a pile of old bandages). Lee’s came across as a bit serious at times, but Cushing always claimed that this was far from the truth, telling how his friend would lift him out of the dumps by impersonating Sylvester the Cat. Memories of making THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, with Lee in full monster makeup hanging around Cushing’s dressing room and singing opera at him whilst doing soft-shoe shuffles, are beguiling. Whilst he wasn’t in the best Bond movie, Lee is one of the best Bond villains, and his ‘Mr Hyde’ version of 007 is genuinely unsettling. But away with sorrow…here’s to a long life well lived

    Jenny Hanley can hardly be called an early femme fatale, since she didn’t appear until 1970 and THE SCARS OF DRACULA, which was the Dracula film immediately before AD 1972. As for the West Country peasants…how about the sublime moment in RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, where Russian villager Bryan Marshall asks the pub landlord ” ‘Ooos this ‘ere Raaaaaasputin, then?”

    Although the company did rather lose touch with youth culture, its demise has always seemed more down to straight economics. The American backing had dried up by the early 70s, and fewer people wanted to spend a night out in a dirty, stuffy, expensive cinema when they could stay at home and enjoy Saturday night TV. Until STAR WARS came along it really seemed as though cinema was going to die out.

  7. Ian Smith says:

    Well, if anyone wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

  8. snowy says:

    Carpathia! Bit of a slog to get out there, can’t we just dive round the back of the Kings Road instead? [I’m sure I can find a cheesecloth shirt and a pair of platforms somewhere, if that would help!]

    [BoJo would turn up for the opening of an envelope, offer him the chance to get his mush back in front of the cameras and he’d probably cut his own throat!]

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    Always for the Wicker Man. I named my second daughter Rowan because of that film.

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