Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)

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Christopher Lee CollageBy 1966, Sir Christopher Lee had already completed countless movies for Hammer Films. He had made the role of Count Dracula his own and had already secured his place amongst other legendary horror actors. Yet, it would be his role as a real life character that would allow his acting abilities to truly shine. With Rasputin, the Mad Monk, Lee brings forth a character as frightening as any traditional monster.

In his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Christopher Lee provided a perfect description of Rasputin.

“Healer and rapist, peasant and seer, Rasputin was a legendary enigma, a real actor’s part, one of the best I’d had…and I had a long-drawn-out exquisite death to get my teeth into.” 

Rasputin posterGrigori Rasputin was a real-life character in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was a peasant and mystic healer who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II. How much influence he had over the family remains the stuff of legend. Conflicting accounts have done nothing to substantiate the claims but everything to make him a historical oddity. What is certain is that his presence played a key role in the end of Russian monarchy and his assassination remains shrouded in mystery even today.

In Rasputin, the Mad Monk, much of the historical facts are set aside in order to portray Rasputin as an almost demonic force. As the movie begins, we see that an innkeeper’s wife is near death. Rasputin comes barging in demanding wine, only to find a very somber environment. He goes to the woman’s bedside and mystically removes her fever. He in turn drinks freely at the inn and attempts to rape the innkeeper’s daughter. When Rasputin is brought before a bishop, he mocks their religious beliefs even when the bishop claims the power he has comes from Satan. The innkeeper comes to his defense and Rasputin goes free.

Rasputin 1Rasputin soon reveals his plot to become close to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson) so he can gain influence over the ruling family. Rasputin uses hypnotism to control and seduce his victims. His intentions are soon discovered by the family and, with the help of Dr. Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco), an ally of Rasputin, a plot is in place to kill Rasputin. However, that is much easier said than done. The ultimate death is a grisly one but not quite what the filmmakers wanted since Prince Yusopoff, the real-life assassin of Rasputin, was still alive. It needed to be tamed down for religious reasons as well since the image of Rasputin raising his hands up in benediction was too much for the censors of the day.

What enhances Christopher Lee’s performance is his close association to the real Rasputin. Lee and his mother actually met the real Prince Yusopoff when Lee was a child. He also met Rasputin’s daughter in 1976 and even visited the site of the murder in St. Petersburg. It seems that he was born to play the part of Rasputin.Rasputin 2

Rasputin, the Mad Monk is one of Christopher Lee’s best performances and a highlight of his career. He brings to life the grotesque visage and voracious appetites better than I think anyone could have. I highly recommend this movie. It is currently available on YouTube, which is going to be your best option at this point. The movie is out-of-print here in North America and DVDs have a very hefty price tag. This film is a good reason to purchase a region-free DVD/Blu-ray player as it is currently available in the UK and Europe. However you watch it, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it!

Next time, Lee reunites with Peter Cushing for one of their best outings together, Horror Express (1972).Rasputin 3

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – The Wicker Man (1973)

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The Wicker ManThis week on the Dread Media podcast in episode 413, the Sir Christopher Lee tribute continues with the 1973 classic, The Wicker Man. This was one of Christopher Lee’s personal favorites and a film he was quite passionate about. There have been numerous versions over the years but the current “Final Cut” version available on Blu-Ray may be the most complete we ever see. I highly recommend adding this one to your collection.

Next time here at the blog, the tribute takes a step back a few years for another of his finest roles as Christopher Lee stars in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966).

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

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Christopher Lee CollageSir Christopher Lee would star in five Sherlock Holmes films during his career. In 1959, he starred as Sir Henry Baskerville alongside Peter Cushing’s Sherlock in the Hammer Films production The Hound of the Baskervilles. In 1970, he would appear as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the Billy Wilder production The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Finally, in 1991 and 1992, he would star as the master detective himself in two made-for-television films, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls. However, those two films were not his first time appearing as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. In 1962, he would have the lead role in the international production, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.

On the surface, the movie appears to have had everything in place for a cinematic masterpiece. The screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak, responsible for such Universal Horror classics as The Wolf Man (1941), Son of Dracula (1943) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Siodmak initially intended the film to be an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. However, very little from that novel ever made it to the final film version. Hammer Films director Terence Fisher (Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy) was set to bring his style to the master detective.

SHDN posterThe cast seemed perfect as well. Christopher Lee simply looked the part of Sherlock, especially after the placement of a prosthetic nose. Thorley Walters would appear as Dr. Watson, a role he would play again three more times in his career. Both seemed to be channeling the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce interpretations, especially Walters. The rest of the cast did a fine job as well, especially Hans Sohnker as Professor Moriarty. The plot was simple enough as Sherlock Holmes attempts to recover a stolen necklace, previously worn by Cleopatra. He goes head-to-head with his old foe Moriarty. So, with everything in place for success, what happened?

For starters, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate was not happy with the dailies and, as they had final approval, they required constant reshoots. They weren’t happy with the decision to place the story in modern times, so it was set somewhat in the past but cars were still present. I have to agree, I always prefer my Holmes to be in the 1800s. Second, a jazz score was chosen to accompany the film. It seems out-of-place and very anachronistic, even annoying at times.

SH 2But the biggest failure of the film is the audio. Apparently, the original audio track was unusable. So, rather than reuniting the cast to redub their lines, different actors were brought in. It’s hard to really judge Lee’s performance when the actor doing his voice is simply not Sir Christopher Lee. Lee looks the part and, from what we can tell, acts the part as good as some of the best Sherlock Holmes interpretations ever. Lee acknowledged as such, claiming the role to be one of his best. However, he and most of the cast agree that the movie is a disaster. Being an international production, the main fault seems to be on the German side.  Even with all the correct pieces in place, the poor production ultimately kills the film.

SH 1Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace was released throughout Europe in 1962 and 1963 but wouldn’t be seen in the UK until 1968. It was never released theatrically in the United States, where it went directly to television. Retromedia Entertainment released it on DVD in 2005, copies of which can still be found for less than $10. Alpha Video also released it in as a double feature alongside another lesser known Sherlock Holmes film, The Speckled Band (1931). A cheaper option may be to just watch it on YouTube. However you watch it, the print is in need of restoration, which will most likely never happen. It’s worth checking out for Christopher Lee alone, but go in with low expectations as it will ultimately disappoint.

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – The City of the Dead (1960)

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Christopher Lee CollageIn 1960, Christopher Lee would embark on one of his best roles as Professor Alan Driscoll in the John Llewellyn Moxey directed The City of the Dead. The film is best known in the United States under the title of Horror Hotel. Whatever the title, the end result is an incredibly atmospheric flick about witchcraft that may owe some of its’ plot to the even more famous Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho.

The plot is fairly short and simple. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a student of Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) and is fascinated about witchcraft and the burnings that took place in Massachusetts. Much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) and brother Richard (Dennis Lotis), she is encouraged by her professor to travel to Whitewood to do research for a paper she is writing. Of course, the town is way off the beaten track and seemingly shrouded in fog all of the time. On her way there, she encounters a mysterious man that we know to be Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall, Doctor Who). In the opening flashback, we witness the burning of witch Elizabeth Selwyn in Whitewood while her lover Jethrow watched on.City of the Dead poster

Nan arrives at a hotel where the innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel) appears to be very secretive of Whitewood. Despite the warnings of a young mute maid, curiosity gets the best of Nan as she discovers the true nature of Whitewood. What follows is the story of how her brother, with the help of a local librarian and her pastor father, travels to Whitewood to get answers. Not surprisingly, there is much more to Professor Driscoll and the rest of the townspeople than originally thought.

The original screenplay was intended to be a pilot for a television series starring Boris Karloff before it was expanded and turned into a feature film. With Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky serving as two of the producers, this was clearly the groundwork for Amicus Productions some five years later.

HH 1The movie has often been compared to Psycho due to its many plot similarities. I wasn’t even aware of these accusations when I first watched it and Psycho immediately came to my mind. A girl travels to a hotel and appears to be the main star of the movie before suddenly getting killed off. Then, a secondary character assumes the lead role as he investigates her disappearance. The producers claimed that the movie started production before Psycho and stated that perhaps Psycho was inspired by The City of the Dead. That might have been valid except that the movies were in production at virtually the same time in two different countries and that Robert Bloch’s original novel had already been published.

The City of the Dead was not commercially successful and didn’t get released in the United States until 1963 under the more simplistic title Horror Hotel. It did have several lines excised for reasons unknown as they helped set the stage for the film and established the curse. Otherwise, the two versions are essentially the same. The City of the Dead has fallen into public domain and is readily available on various DVD sets. Check it out for free on YouTube, complete with all of its original dialogue. Then, tune into episode 339 of the B Movie Cast to hear what Vince Rotolo and the gang there has to say about it.

Next time, Christopher Lee enters the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962).HH 2

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

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Dr-TerrorThis week on the Dread Media podcast in episode 412, I leave Hammer behind and dive into the wonderful world of Amicus horror anthologies. As my tribute to the late horror legend Sir Christopher Lee continues, it’s 1965 and Lee is once again reunited with Peter Cushing in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Check out the movie on YouTube (or at least as long as you can) then tune in to the podcast for my thoughts.

Next time here at the blog, it’s one of Christopher Lee’s best horror films in City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960).

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – The Mummy (1959)

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Christopher Lee CollageApproximately two months after The Man Who Could Cheat Death finished filming, the cameras started to roll again for the next Hammer horror flick. The Mummy (1959) would bring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee back together again in the familiar roles of hero and monster. But, this time, Christopher Lee is given an opportunity to act many scenes without extensive makeup or fangs via some fantastic flashback sequences. Those scenes help elevate The Mummy to one of my personal favorites from both Lee and Hammer.

Our movie begins in the year 1895 in Egypt as three archaeologists have just discovered the tomb of Princess Ananka. Peter Cushing is John Banning, who is sidelined with a broken leg as his father Stephen and Uncle Joseph enter the tomb. However, before they enter, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell, Konga, Maniac) warns them of the curse. Of course, they ignore it and enter anyway. When John’s uncle leaves to share the exciting news of what they found inside, we hear Stephen scream. He has found the Scrolls of Life and, as we discover later in the movie in a flashback sequence, after reciting the ancient text, he has revived the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee), who falls under the control of Mehemet Bey.

The Mummy posterThe movie jumps ahead three years and we find that Stephen has suffered a mental collapse and never recovered. Yet, he miraculously awakes from his catatonic state and warns his son about what he did and that Kharis will now seek out revenge against those who desecrated the tomb. Soon after, Kharis kills Stephen as he begins the evil work of Mehemet Bey. Later, John shares the background story of Kharis as he tries to convince his uncle of what he believes is happening. It is here that we get an amazing set of flashbacks and Lee begins to shine in this film outside of his mummy wrappings.

Mummy 1The flashback sequence establishes that Kharis was a high priest who officiated over the funeral ceremonies after the death of Princess Ananka. Here is where the movie follows the 1940s Universal films more closely rather than the original 1932 flick with Boris Karloff. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster would take elements from those 40s films and flesh out the background story of Kharis. Kharis was a priest who was in love with Ananka and would do anything to bring her back. Reciting the words from the Scrolls of Life, he nearly succeeds before he is caught. He is sentenced to be buried alive and watch over the princess for eternity. Personally, I loved these sequences as both the use of color and the Hammer set pieces far surpassed anything Universal attempted. And while Lee doesn’t speak any lines over Cushing’s narration, his visual presentation is really all we need.

The rest of the movie follows the usual pattern with Kharis discovering a young woman who resembles his beloved princess. Yvonne Furneaux (Repulsion) played the dual roles of Princess Ananka and John’s wife Isobel. He begins to seek her out as well so he can be reunited with his one true love. We have a climactic sequence in a swamp (never too far away in a good mummy flick) with John and the police in hot pursuit.

The Mummy is a truly fun film and one of my favorite Hammer films. Not surprisingly, most critics loved it, commenting how it was Hammer’s best effort to date. The film was also hugely successful in the United States. Yet, unlike Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, it failed to generate a popular series of sequels. Only three more mummy films would be made over the next twelve years and none of them would be direct sequels nor would they feature either Cushing or Lee.Mummy 2

On a fun side note, Cushing’s broken leg and subsequent limp in The Mummy were actually written into the script after Cushing twisted his leg before filming. It adds a sense of reality to his overall performance, which is at the usual high Cushing standards. Lee does well in the mummy wrappings but excels in his role as the priest Kharis. Lee would write about how battered his body had become by this time after several roles put his body through some demanding stunts. The Mummy was no different as he would crash through windows and doors along with carrying Yvonne Furneaux into the swamp. Nonetheless, monster kids are thankful for his sacrifices, which we continue to enjoy so many decades later.Mummy 3

Next time, Lee dons a warlocks robe in the 1960 classic, City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel. Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen The Mummy, it is readily available on DVD and will be released on Blu-ray in October. Check out the trailer on YouTube and listen to episode 21 of the 1951 Down Place podcast as Derek and the boys do their usual top shelf review of this amazing flick.

Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee – The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

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MWCCD posterThe year is 1959 and Christopher Lee is not having any difficulty finding work, thanks in large part to Hammer Films. This week over at Dream Media in episode #411, I’m taking a look at The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) starring Anton Diffring, Hazel Court and Mr. Lee. This was a first time viewing for me. While it’s not going to make my top ten favorites list, the film is made better because of Lee’s presence. Take a listen and let me know what you think!

Next time here at Monster Movie Kid, we stick around in 1959 for a look at The Mummy!