I think that I can speak for a large majority of film fans when I say that we were shocked to hear of Sir Christopher Lee’s passing. Lee is one of those actors who everyone at some point in time has had a run-in with, even if they were unaware of the fact. A cursory glance at Lee’s filmography explains why. According to IMDb, Lee acted in 281 titles, whether he was on screen or lending his voice to an animated feature or video game. It’s because Lee had such an impact that cinema that he is missed so much today.
For me, I was introduced to Lee at a pretty young age. Being the enormous Sherlock Holmes fanatic I am, it’s not surprising that my introduction came from Lee’s performance as Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Lee also helped develop my love of all the James Bond films. When I was first introduced to the secret agent in Dr. No, I admit that I was a little underwhelmed. For a while I didn’t quite know what to think of Bond films on a whole; that was until I decided to give The Man with the Golden Gun a whirl. Why did I choose that title: it was to see Lee’s turn as villain Francisco Scaramanga without doubt.
But for me, Lee will always be remembered for his horror film roles. The man himself insisted that he appeared in only one horror film – 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. However, I daresay that Lee will be remembered best for his multiple performances as Count Dracula for Hammer. Lee’s Dracula simply revolutionized the character. Until 1958 when he donned the vampire’s cape for the first time, the public still associated Bela Lugosi with the King of Vampires. Lugosi’s theatrical delivery of course set the precedent for vampires throughout all time, but Lee flipped that conception on its head. Lee’s Dracula was a true force to be reckoned with: he is the epitome of evil in the film, and even today when Hammer’s Dracula no longer manages to frighten us, Lee’s Dracula can still send shivers up and done one’s spine.
Lee was simply hypnotic as the count, but he was hypnotic in nearly everything he did. He made for fascinating viewing in all of his roles, even when he wasn’t playing a character endowed with hypnotic ability. Who could forget Lee’s Kharis the mummy whose sad eyes and brute force makes him a terrifying threat in Hammer’s The Mummy? Or what about his pompous Paul Allen in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll who all but oozes slime and is still incredibly watchable? Even late in Lee’s career, his fascinating characterizations did not cease. His cameo in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow sets the tone for the remainder of the film in only minutes. Similarly, Lee’s appearance as Dr. Wilbur Wonka in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great character study, even if Lee is only on screen for a few minutes.
Lee will probably be remembered for his contribution to cinema as a cool, calculating villain, but he worked just as well in the role of the hero on the side of the angels. While it may be all but impossible to properly judge Lee’s turn as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace) after he was dubbed over by an unknown actor, it is hard not to like Lee’s curmudgeon of a detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls which came out three decades later. Lee also turned in great performances as a hero in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, and in the entertaining romp Horror Express opposite Peter Cushing.
Responding to the news of Lee’s passing, Mark Gatiss tweeted out that Lee was “criminally underrated.” I’m inclined to agree. When an actor makes a name for himself primarily in horror films, the actor isn’t always highly regarded in certain circles. But, as Robbie Collin of The Telegraph wrote, “He could turn shlock into Shakespeare” and few horror actors can claim that distinction.
Christopher Lee, you shall be missed.
As a side note, did you know he could sing too? Click here to see