Saturday, June 13, 2009

Knight of the Living Dead


Went for a walk this morning, walked past a newsagent's and saw the headline "Arise, Sir Dracula!" next to a picture of Christopher Lee with red eyes and blood-dripping fangs.
The knighthood, long overdue, has been campaigned for relentlessly by his fans via internet petitions. Now at last it is his, but imagine his bittersweet pleasure at seeing that headline!
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The last of the great horror icons, Lee is a versatile and distinguished actor of an older, more theatrical tradition, and also wonderfully, heroically grumpy.
He has never quite come to terms with – or fully accounted for – the fact that his career took him into some extremely seedy and low budget corners of the film industry, when, say, Kenneth More’s or Donald Sinden’s or Richard Attenborough’s did not. This was the kind of civilised Pinewood company he had gone into the film business expecting to encounter; instead he was as often as not to be found in Spain or Italy or Germany, making films with the likes of Jesus Franco and Harry Alan Towers and titles like The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion and Howling 2: Your Sister Is a Werewolf.
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ffffffffffff..............ffffffffffffff Lee being scary
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Hammer fans often get impatient with his insistence that he is not a horror star, that he has played in far more films of other genres, and that the Dracula movies were undertaken reluctantly and under pressure from Sir James Carreras.
But delightful as the Dracula series is, it is obvious that he is right, and that the films could have been a lot better if more care had gone into them.
Perhaps the biggest treat in Wayne Kinsey’s two endlessly readable volumes of nerdy Hammer trivia is the quotes from the letters Lee wrote to the president of his fan club when he began embarking on a new Dracula movie. Every time he repeats the same objections and assures us that this will be the last.

He is also, I sense, not thrilled by the obsessive nature of many horror fans: I well recall an occasion when, after lecturing at the NFT, he was cornered by a Devil Rides Out fanatic whose life seemingly depended on conveying the fact that his favourite scene in the film was “the bit where you say ‘don’t look at his eyes’”; it remains the only time I have ever seen him look frightened.

The ethics and worldview of the exploitation industry simply baffle him. He is hilarious discoursing on, for example, Milton Subotsky’s decision to cast him as Jekyll and Hyde - retaining the original plot and all subsidiary characters, correctly named - only to insist on his roles being renamed Dr Marlowe and Mr Blake and the film itself rebranded I, Monster. The reason is probably simple: the very fact that the film was a faithful adaptation meant that Subotsky felt obliged to pretend it was something new, and if by any chance there was anyone who hadn’t heard of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I, Monster was far more likely to get them into the cinemas.
But to Lee, the whole affair is a dark, impenetrable mystery.
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ffffffffff................ffffffffff Lee trying not to be scary
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His best performances are often in unworthy projects. Halliwell's dismissal of Rasputin, the Mad Monk as a “dreary excuse for Christopher Lee to go berserk” is funny but hardly fair: Lee is fully mesmeric in the role. (As well as playing Rasputin he had been introduced to his assassins as a child, and to his daughter as an adult. He is also the only actor to have played Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, and to have beheaded both Charles I and Louis XVI on screen.)
I love his cameo in Death Line, his barnstorming turn in the old boys' reunion House of the Long Shadows and his scariest villain: Lord Summerisle, a fine performance in what I fear may be a somewhat overrated film, The Wicker Man.
And his Dracula, too, is unquestionably magnificent, especially in the Franco version for which he had such high, dashed hopes. Lee’s Count is convincingly aristocratic, frighteningly powerful when suddenly roused to violent activity, and imbued, like his Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, with a delicate pathos, conveyed via his considerable gift for mime. The voice is rich and compelling, but as an actor it is not his principle instrument. Lee acts primarily with his body, turning to advantage the six feet and five inches that initially kept him out of lead roles for over a decade.
Watch the behind the scenes footage of him filming the prologue to Dracula AD 1972, as director Alan Gibson tries to show him how to act being impaled on a cartwheel. Lee listens graciously, then looks away and raises his eyebrows to the heavens. The gesture tells you almost all you need to know about the man’s integrity, his devotion to his craft, and his commitment to giving audiences the very best of which he is capable.

11 comments:

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: There's a whole bunch of Sir Lee tributes bouncing around the blogasphere - this one's the best.

Hey! I finally got my Fay Wray header! Awesome! -- Mykal

Lolita said...

Yes, the Fay Wray header is perfect here!
Great post - I'll have to look a little closer on Christopher Lee. Gosh, he was sexy in that first b/w picture!

Radiation Cinema! said...

Lolita: Did you ever here what Clara Bow said about him? (just kidding). -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

I'm clued-up...
However...
did you know that Clara really did have a (by all accounts extrememly torrid)affair with Bela Lugosi? Apparently he had a nude painting of her that he kept until his death.
And... because I'm in that kind of a mood... I read somewhere (can't remember where it was anymore) that a famous Hollywood prostitute was once asked who of all the dozens and dozens of stars she serviced was "the greatest swordsman" and she answered without hesitation: Boris Karloff!
Sorry for lowering the tone; thanks all for the nice comments; Fay says thanks too.
Matthew

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: The comment about Clara Bow was for Lolita's benifit. She had done a post recently about Gary Cooper, and I had mentioned Bow's famous comment about Cooper's sexual powers and, ahem, abilities: "He (Cooper) was hung like a horse and could go all night." I apologize for lowering the tone even further.

Anyway, I did not know about Lugosi! Wow, was that girl a carnivore, or what! All kidding aside, the Lugosi and Bow pairing is somehow perfect and oddly beautiful to imagine! All that black hair and pale skin! And as for Boris, I have to say that doesn't suprise me for some reason. - Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, they didn't call him Mr Wong for nothing.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Not to be pushy, my London friend, but the posts have been a bit skimpy of late! -- Mykal

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: that is to say, the number of recent posts have been a bit skimpy, certainly not quality! In other words, I'm looking for a new post! -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Sorry! New stuff on the way, I promise!

George White said...

Don't forget Attenborough worked for Towers in And Then There Were None.
And as for More, he was in this really cheesy 1970s Spanish Doug McClure-ripping Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

George White said...

Don't forget Attenborough worked for Towers in And Then There Were None.
And as for More, he was in this really cheesy 1970s Spanish Doug McClure-ripping Journey to the Centre of the Earth.