On June 7, the horror community lost the last of the true legends. Sir Christopher Lee passed away at the age of 93 due to heart problems and respiratory failure. It is natural to mourn the loss of an actor with 278 acting credits, one of which hasn’t even been released yet. However, almost everyone who was a fan of his work is choosing to celebrate an incredibly long and productive life. Here, at Monster Movie Kid, we’re going to join in the celebrations by dedicating the month of July to a selection of his films, some classics and some not-so-much. But all made better by his presence on the screen.
Christopher Lee was born in 1922 but he didn’t make his first film appearance until 1946. His life before film was an adventure unto itself. While he did act in some school productions, the start of World War II in 1939 meant it was time to put aside the stage and volunteer in the armed forces. His service during the war was what films were made for. Yet, right until his death, he refused to talk of his time attached to the SAS. He admitted to being in the Special Forces but that was it. An amazing life just waiting for someone to bring it to life on the big screen.
He would return to acting in 1946 with one of his earliest roles being in Hamlet (1948) as an uncredited spear carrier. He would work his way through bit parts, uncredited cameos and occasional TV roles. Then, in 1957, he would take his first steps into the horror world by accepting the part of the Creature in Curse of Frankenstein (1957). This would begin his long association with Hammer Films as well as his good friend Peter Cushing. It wasn’t Shakespeare but Christopher Lee would never approach any project with less than 100% dedication. That doesn’t mean to say he was entirely happy with the production. He hated the makeup and was greatly disappointed by his lack of lines. Yet, his performance was magnificent and, personally, I think one of the more definitive interpretations pf Mary Shelley’s creation, if not entirely accurate to the written word.
The story is at its core the same with minor tweaks and changes along the way, adding a touch of British flare. Dr. Frankenstein is also a Baron here, which allows Cushing the opportunity to add his unique touch to the role. At time the epitome of British upper class, at others a madman digging through graves for body parts. His mentor and tutor is Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who begins as an ally and ends up being the voice of reason the Baron ignores. This would be the first time that Frankenstein’s grisly work would be seen so graphically, another typical Hammer touch. And let’s not forget the ever present Hammer women. Hazel Court (The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death) would turn in a great performance as cousin and future bride Elizabeth while Valerie Gaunt would star as lustful maid Justine.
The makeup work was a stark contrast to what Universal had done in the 30s and 40s. This was quite deliberate to ensure no legal issues once the film was released. Graphic and somewhat crude, the end result seems to add a measure of authenticity and realism. Supposedly, the Creature’s first appearance so shocked the London filmgoers that many needed to go for their smelling salts (good old-fashioned marketing hype right there). Lee’s mannerisms of walking and his difficulty getting up and sitting down are some details other actors have easily overlooked in other adaptations. Despite his lack of lines, Lee made the role his, bringing forth both pity and fear from the audience. It laid the foundations for his partnership with Cushing that would be cemented one year later in Dracula (1958).
Curse of Frankenstein was raked over the coals by the British press for being so horrific. Yet, the audiences loved it on both sides of the pond. It ultimately grossed more than seventy times its production costs. It redefined the horror genre and began the Hammer horror era of dominance. Many have discussed this film over the years but I recommend checking out my friends over at the 1951 Down Place podcast. They covered it back in 2011 on episode 2. Go listen right now and tell them Monster Movie Kid sent you. Meanwhile, check out the official clip from Hammer on YouTube. It’s available on a variety of DVD releases but is only available on region 2 Blu-ray at this time. However you track it down, if you’ve somehow never seen it, I highly recommend it.
Next time, Christopher Lee takes on the role that would define his career in 1958s Dracula.