Christopher Lee caps a|
'villainous' career with
two high-profile roles
April 4, 2002
By Franklin Harris
At 79, Christopher Lee is arguably at the height of his career, attracting more attention now than at any time since the '60s.
Back then, he was famous for portraying cinema's most enduring monsters. Now, he has villainous roles in two ongoing movie sagas.
In May, Lee appears as Count Dooku in "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones." Then, at Christmas, he returns as the wizard Saruman in the second "Lord of the Rings" installment, "The Two Towers."
The roles are a fitting capstone for an actor who made his name playing cinematic villains.
Lee was virtually unknown until 1957, when he appeared as The Creature opposite Peter Cushing in "The Curse of Frankenstein."
That was the beginning of Lee's long association with Hammer Films, an independent British studio, which specialized in horror, sci-fi and fantasy films from the '50s through the '70s. (I'm ignoring the "On the Buses" films, and you should, too.)
After one outing as Mary Shelley's monster, Lee took on the role for which he is still best known, Dracula.
Hammer's 1958 production, "Horror of Dracula," is arguably the best screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's tale so far, even if it isn't the most faithful to the novel.
Thanks to the energetic direction of Terence Fisher, "Horror of Dracula" easily outclasses Todd Browning's stodgy 1931 "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi.
Lee's "tall, dark and gruesome" Dracula was more energetic, too.
If Lugosi's Dracula made women swoon, Lee's swept them off their feet.
In "Horror of Dracula," Lee again worked with Cushing, who this time co-starred as Dr. Van Helsing. Together, Lee and Cushing delivered a final confrontation between hero and villain that stands among the best in any genre.
After "Dracula," Lee swore off playing the Count, but he didn't swear off horror.
Lee, Cushing and Fisher reunited for two films in 1959, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Mummy."
As the doomed Egyptian priest Kharis in "The Mummy," Lee cemented his reputation as a master of horror. Even Boris Karloff played only two classic monsters, the Mummy and Frankenstein's monster. Lee now had a third on his résumé.
Lee played memorable characters away from Hammer, too. Probably the most famous is Lee's title role in "The Face of Fu Manchu" (1965) and its sequels. Of course, such politically incorrect casting would never happen today.
Back at Hammer, Lee appeared in "The Gorgon" (1965); "She" (1965), starring former Bond girl Ursula Andress; and, as the title character, "Rasputin: The Mad Monk" (1966).
In 1966, Lee finally returned to the role that made him a star, appearing in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness."
Although "Prince of Darkness" is one of the better installments in Hammer's "Dracula" series, Lee was unimpressed with the dialog he was given. He insisted on playing Dracula as a mute, save for the occasional snarl or hiss. Amazingly, Lee is such an imposing presence, you never notice Dracula has no lines.
Between 1966 and 1975, Lee donned his cape for "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave," "Scars of Dracula," "Taste the Blood of Dracula," "Dracula A.D. 1972" and "The Satanic Rites of Dracula." But by the time "Satanic Rites" came out in 1974, the Hammer formula was losing its potency.
Lee made his last film for Hammer, "To the Devil, a Daughter," starring a very young and very naked Nastassia Kinski, in 1976.
Lee also played the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, in the documentary "In Search of Dracula" (1975), and he starred in 1970's "Count Dracula" for Spanish director Jess Franco, best known for such exploitation classics as "Vampyros Lesbos" and "The Bare-Breasted Countess."
Still, Lee's career wasn't all about bloodsucking freaks.
In 1973, Lee played Lord Summerisle, the pagan cult leader in "The Wicker Man." The part was written specifically for Lee, and Lee returned the favor by giving his best performance.
Then, as the hired killer Scaramanga, Lee gave Roger Moore's James Bond a good run in 1974's "The Man with the Golden Gun."
Since then, Lee has appeared in numerous film and television roles, most of them unworthy of his talents.
Of course, Lee did play the occasional hero, as in 1968's "The Devil Rides Out," widely regarded as one of Hammer's best films.
Given all of his contributions to cinematic horror, it is fitting that Lee is appearing in the year's two most high-profile films. That is the kind of curtain call a movie legend deserves.