Thursday, October 10, 2013

Christopher Lee, Prince of Darkness

This just in from the "prestigious" British newspaper, The Guardian:

Lord of the Rings star Christopher Lee has been awarded a prestigious BFI Fellowship. The presentation will be made on 19 October at Banqueting House, Whitehall, during the London film festival, the BFI's premier event.
The BFI Fellowship is an award given "to individuals in recognition of their outstanding contribution to film or television". 2012's honorees were actor Helena Bonham Carter and director Tim Burton. In 2011, writer-director David Cronenberg and actor-director Ralph Fiennes were recipients.

Wankers.

First of all, it's SIR Christopher Lee. Second of all...LORD OF THE RINGS star? He also "starred" in 1941. What was Dracula...a footnote?

I have great love for this icon of my youth. Obviously, since I wrote an ode to he, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood in my book IN THE DARK entitled "The Good, the Bad and the Undead". Since Sir Christopher is receiving his award next week and Halloween is coming up, here is an excerpt from ITD all about the man, the fangs and the cape.

The heroes of my life were all killers.

Oh. I’m sorry. It appears that I’ve upset you. Let me assure you that you have nothing to fear from me. If your hackles have been raised since reading those words, you can go ahead and lower them now…slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves. For God’s sake, get that judgmental look off your face…It really disturbs me…

Aw, relax, would ya? It’s not as if I worshipped at the shrine of Charles Manson, traded baseball cards with The Boston Strangler or harbored a lifelong dream to open up the Ed Gein Culinary Academy.

Hardly.

My heroes were a dapper, debonair government assassin, a monosyllabic bounty hunter who brought ‘em in mostly dead not alive and a bloodsucking Lord of the Undead. To better identify them, you might recognize the names James Bond, The Man with No Name and Count Dracula.
In every one of his movies, the last member of my trifecta started out dead. Okay, okay…UN-dead. (Must we have this conversation? It’s all semantics anyway.) He was, of course, Dracula, the Vampire’s Vampire, embodied by the legendary Christopher Lee.

From the mid-fifties to the early seventies, Lee, along with Peter Cushing, was one of the main stars of Hammer Studios, England’s chief producer of horror films. It was there that Lee recreated a couple of Boris Karloff’s greatest roles, namely the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy. However, it is the character most closely identified with Bela Lugosi that Lee found his fame as well. His interpretation of the Count was vastly and radically different from his predecessor’s. Physically, Lee was taller and certainly more athletic than Lugosi, so Dracula became more of a swashbuckler, albeit an evil swashbuckler. He would use his cape as an extension of his own body, flowing behind him as he strode away or would wrap it around his long frame like a black shroud. He tossed the Transylvanian accent out the window and instead utilized those stentorian tones of his with complete and absolute authority.

But, in my personal favorite of the Hammer/Dracula series and the first I had ever

seen, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Lee has no dialogue at all and it is extremely effective. Dracula is virtually silent during the course of the movie, save for the occasional scowling hiss that seemed to come from deep within where his soul used to be. Never before or since has Dracula been portrayed so frighteningly. This was raw, savage evil incarnate, a truly vicious demon from hell. Legend has it that Lee played it in this manner because his dialogue was so trite. It doesn’t matter to me because, as far as I’m concerned, it worked. It made such an impression on me that when Lee spoke in the follow-up film, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, I remember being very disappointed in the change.

Lee had help from the Hammer makeup department that outfitted him with a great set of sharp fangs and, best of all, bloodshot contact lenses. He could have been a poster boy for Visine. He was also provided with another set that were solid red indicating that after a night’s feasting, this dude was full.

The movies themselves contributed greatly to his success in the character. Hammer pictures, while low budgeted, benefited from good to excellent production values. The acting was always decent, the stories fairly exciting and the bottom line was, for an assembly line, Hammer put out a very respectable and reliable product. Naturally, what really stirred my juices were the two ingredients I began to crave…good ol’ sex and violence.

My first memories of blood on the big screen, before then almost a taboo, were in Hammer films. These weren’t overdone splatter effects, but for that time, they didn’t hold back much either. A stake through the heart was no longer just hinted at, projected as a shadow on the wall or executed off camera. There it was in all of its gory glory. When the blood flowed in the resurrection scene of Dracula, Prince of Darkness,  director Terrence Fisher made it almost a character itself, perhaps the essence of all that is unholy.

The icing on my boyhood cake was that these Hammer pictures were so damn lusty which, along with the sexuality portrayed in the Bond pictures, meant I was doing A-OK for my age in the sexual awakening department. I was exposed, in both senses of the word, to many a bursting bodice and plunging peasant blouse that revealed enough cleavage to fill both sides of the screen. Several times too was that camera shot of the undraping of a lusciously voluptuous woman tuned away from the camera, revealing only her naked back that outlined her curvaceous female form, making my increasingly horny little mind believe that I had just seen everything!

Since Dracula is one of the great sex symbols of all time, Lee’s version of the Count fit right into this atmosphere.  You knew damn well this guy was getting a lot more action than the monkey bites he was doling out. It has been said that no one could resist the will of Dracula, but it always seemed that Lee’s victims wanted to give up more than their jugulars.

Christopher Lee will always be the perfect Dracula to me. Unfortunately, I feel like I’m betraying a fellow Hungarian by not giving Bela Lugosi his due, but that’s part of the problem I have with him. Bela always came across to me like a creepy uncle, the one the family didn’t talk about much.  Granted, Lee’s Dracula was more of a product of my era and I accept that. There was no getting around that overpowering presence of his when he donned the cape. Lee gave the world’s greatest vampire his unmistakable signature, the distinction of a great actor that makes him totally identifiable with a given character. As Dracula, he dominated the screen to the point of making all else in the film before, after or even during his screen time seem inconsequential, save for him.
 Lee had a bumpy road ahead of him once he left the cape behind. Fortunately, he was able to make a class A horror film, THE WICKER MAN, a sensational picture from director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer. From there, he continued on as a villain in a better grade of films like Richard Lester’s THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS where he held his own against Oliver Reed, Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway. A dream damn near came true for me when Lee played the James Bond villain in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, an unfortunately weak entry in the series. He managed to shine when the movie didn’t. But now, here he is over the age of ninety appearing in some of the biggest movies of recent times time, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (though Peter Jackson callously cut his scenes from the theatrical version of RETURN OF THE KING) and the Star Wars prequels , where George Lucas kept him for all three films even if he had the unfortunate name of Count Dooku. And Lee’s still working. That, my friends, is called longevity.

Once and forever, I live with the memories of these indelible images. Connery, Sean Connery is Bond, James Bond, saving the world once again from a maniacal madman before tumbling off to the sack with another spectacular babe. Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name except Blondie takes a puff off his cheroot after drawing his six-shooter and blowing away a pack of ornery cowpokes with names like Umberto and Giuseppe. Finally, standing on the grand staircase of a cobweb ridden castle is a statuesque aristocrat with crimson eyes, an ebony cape and pointed ivory fangs that glisten in the light of the full moon, for he is Christopher Lee as Dracula, the Prince of Darkness…and it’s supper time…
 (This was written a few years back before he appeared in THE HOBBIT trilogy as well. Hopefully, Peter Jackson won't edit him out of the third film. But never trust a kiwi...)


UPDATE 6/11/15: Today we learned that Sir Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93. If his movies have taught us anything, he shall return. Until he does, his legacy on screens large and small have made him immortal.

IN THE DARK: A LIFE AND TIME IN A MOVIE THEATER is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It can be found on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. 

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