Remembering Actor Christopher Lee

2 Nov


I’ve always loved the classic films and I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies thanks to a fellow Biff Bam Pop friend. Glenn Walker and his lovely bride have even gone on a few of the TCM cruises, which I’m planning on doing if I can talk hubby into joining me. My favorite classic films offered by TCM are science fiction and horror. One of my favorite stars of horror films is Christopher Lee and he was recently TCM’s Star of the Month. Although Christopher Lee did not fit the normal concept of what was expected of our monsters, his good looks did not hinder his scaring the bejeebers out of us. What were your favorite Lee films? Meet me after the jump to find out mine.


Christopher Lee as Dracula

Christopher Lee (1922-2015) did not reach international fame quickly although he was a great leading man, but it wasn’t until he starred in the 1958 Hammer Studio’s “Horror of Dracula,” that he achieved long overdue fame. Originally titled Dracula, “Horror of Dracula,” as it was later retitled, was the first in a series of Hammer films inspired by the Bram Stoker’s novel. The film also featured Peter Cushing, Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling.


The film follows the now familiar formula where Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle and is dragged into the world of the undead. Although Harker eventually understands what he is dealing with and even though he is able to kill the female vampire at the castle, he is too late to kill Dracula; the sun has set.


By the time that Van Helsing arrives at the castle, Harker is a vampire. Van Helsing delivers the bad news to Harker’s fiancée and her brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling). But it’s too late for Lucy (Carol Marsh) because she has already been visited by the vampire. Mina and young Tania (Janina Faye) are at risk as the now dead Lucy tries to lure them to her master’s waiting fangs. With Mina compromised the game is afoot between the hunter and the hunted.


Director Terrence Fisher used the Hammer success story for horror and sex to showcase this Dracula retelling differently than earlier versions. Christopher Lee’s Dracula is more contemporary and yet frighteningly hypnotic. Lee’s Dracula uses no animals or mist to sneak up on his prey. He doesn’t need the cheap tricks; he has sex appeal. The sexual innuendos are very clear in this film and we can understand why the women become willing victims to this sexy vampire. Lee’s Dracula, unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, is not only physically stronger, but he is taller than the other actors making his performance all the more commanding.


The interaction on the screen between Lee’s Dracula and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing are the perfect counter balance between the vampiric passion for blood and the obsessive quest of a Vampire Hunter. As much as I loved and still love Bela Lugosi as Dracula, it was Christopher Lee who brought home the true nightmare of the blood sucker.


Christopher Lee as the Mummy

Once again, Terence Fisher directs for Hammer Films and once again, he gives a new slant to one of the scariest films to ever haunt my childhood. The Mummy is a 1959 horror film directed by Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. There were several earlier versions using the mummy plot, but Universal Pictures’1932 The Mummy and 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand and the Mummy’s Tomb, did not have Lee. It was Christopher Lee’s Kharis that stole the show.


Before I give this review, I need to tell you about the mummy that resides at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. One of my many duties before I retired from that grand museum was doing the mummy classes. We originally had two mummies, male and female, but the female was sent on a road trip and hasn’t return. The mummy that still remains at the museum is Petiese, a high priest who most likely oversaw the religious ceremony of mummification while still alive. Over the years and many mummy classes that I taught to visitors, I began to think of Petiese as an unofficial staff member.


The film begins with archaeologists John Banning (Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and Uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka in Egypt. Although they are warned by a high priest, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) not to desecrate the tomb by disturbing the bodies, the men ignore the warning. John, due to a broken leg, is unable to enter the tomb. It’s interesting to note that Peter Cushing really had an injured leg and so the studio decided to write the injury into the script.


While Joseph is telling John the good news about the discovery, Stephen finds a scroll. It gives the holder the power to bring forth the dead. Stephen accidently brings to life the mummified body of Karis (Lee). Karis is the protector of Princess Ananka, but he was also her forbidden lover while they were both alive. Karis, doing what any young man would do when madly in love, decided to bring the princess back to life using the Scroll of Life. He was stopped by the temple priests and severely punished. His tongue was cut out and he was buried alive.

With Stephen in a catatonic state, the three men return to England, but Bey is not done with them. He is required to kill anyone who tampers with the tomb and makes plans to complete this quest with the aid of Karis’ mummy. The mummy is able to kill Stephen and Joseph, but when he goes after John, Isobel stops him. Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) is the mirror image of Karis’s true love.


There have always been tales about the curses attached to Egyptian Tombs with the curse connected to the opening of King Tut’s tomb being the most famously known. If there is a curse, I wouldn’t know, but when you study Egyptian history and the practice of mummification, you realize that the practice of mummification was no different than how we embalm our dead today. The ancient Egyptians wanted to keep the body from decaying and the process of mummification was really an act of love. The ancient people believed that the soul could only survive if the body survived. I made sure to stress this to the families that visited the museum and wanted to learn about the mummy on the second floor.


Fisher gave Lee’s mummy more personality, much more than Boris Karloff‘s mummy was given in the 1932 film. Once again, Lee is able to make us feel compassion for his character. We understand Karis desire to awaken his lover and we understand his confusion when Bey orders him to kill Isobel. Lee’s mummy was commanding for several reasons: Lee’s mummy walked swiftly and not in a clumsy manner which meant he could catch you: Lee’s mummy was tall and he portrayed a strength we did not expect, but the reality of who made a better mummy, Karloff or Lee, was the way Lee radiated strong emotion even with his face wrapped. Lee was able to mesmerize us with his eyes. We felt his pain.

Do you have a favorite classic horror story that you love to watch? Let me know and maybe I’ll post your review on my blog.

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