I first encountered Christopher Lee shortly before my sixth birthday, in a darkened movie theatre where HORROR OF DRACULA was unspooling onscreen before my startled, innocent eyes. Even at that tender age, I had seen Bela Lugosi as Dracula on Chiller Theatre a few months previously; he had been spooky, but this guy was feral. He had fangs. He had red eyes. He was dangerous. As Lee himself said years later, in Jess Franco’s version of the tale, “This was a Dracula indeed.”
But Lee was so much more than that. He was Frankenstein’s Creature. He was Kharis, the Mummy. He was Fu Manchu. He was Rasputin. He was Scaramanga. His wide range of characters included pirates, evil aristocrats, assassins, soldiers, heroes, politicians. He was in many bad films – The Howling II: My Sister is a Werewolf was one of the worst – but he never gave a bad or insincere performance.
Lee saved the world from aliens in Night of the Big Heat. He nearly destroyed it as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He fought against Yoda in the second Star Wars trilogy. He fenced with Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and Michael York in The Three Musketeers trilogy.
Lee’s real life was no less remarkable. He was a classical scholar in Greek and Latin at Oxford. During World War II, he was an intelligence officer in Europe. He spoke seven languages fluently. And he was married to the same woman for over fifty years, a very uncommon state of affairs in show business.
More to the point for readers of Diabolique, Sir Christopher Lee – he was knighted in 2009 – was a genre icon. Although he disliked being typecast, he will be remembered by several generations of fans as Count Dracula, a role he essayed no less than ten times, seven of them for Hammer. He was a master at playing aristocratic characters with a sinister aura. He could be charming, as he was as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, but under that charm there ran an iciness, a darkness that could chill an audience to the bone.
When I heard this morning that Sir Christopher had died, I was glad I was sitting down; as Lord Summerisle had said to Sergeant Howie, “Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.” I had tried to prepare myself for this moment for some time; after all, the man whom I once referred to as “The Energizer Bunny” had kept going and going, but, at 93, he couldn’t go much longer.
But, my God, what a life… distantly related to the Emperor Charlemagne, cousin to Ian Fleming, friend to Peter Cushing… and a heavy metal star at age 92. There was very little Lee couldn’t do, and very little he didn’t do. His was a life well lived, and even in death he had a dignity: although he passed away on June 7th, his wife Gitte didn’t release the facts to the media until four days later so that the family could have some privacy.
Lee was truly the last of his kind, the last horror star. It isn’t just the end of an era, it’s the end of the line. We shall never see his like again, and the world shall be all the poorer for it. But as long as films flicker, we shall see his image: young again, and feral, and dangerous.