Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Last Horror Star

photo by domenico  cc 2.0

When I was a kid, in love with movies, there were two genres i watched more than any other: musicals and horror films.  I watched the musicals with my parents, but I mostly watched horror films alone, on the sort of late night and Saturday afternoon shows that inspired "Fright Night".  I was first attracted to all those classic Universal and RKO films of the 30's and 40's before working my way backwards to Chaney and the German Masters and forward to the Hammer films. It wasn't long before I made the melancholy discovery that most of the actors I loved  were already dead. Except for Vincent Price there were no major American horror stars working in the 70's.  Not so the Brits though. The two finest British Horror stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were still going strong, indeed giving great performances in mainstream films as well.

Slowly, one by one, the many acting heroes of my youth departed, all but one.  He not only kept on in films, he became a bigger star in the 21st century than he had been in the 20th, appearing in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, in the Star Wars prequels (Watching him duel Yoda was a real mindbender), and several films for Tim Burton.  He was still working into his 90's.

Thursday Morning I was making a quick scan of  my Facebook feed when I saw a number of my favorite pages all sharing the same sad news.  First Hammer Films, then Middle Earth News, then the BBC all announcing the death of Christopher Lee.  I felt a double sadness, not only at the death of an actor I greatly admired, but at the passing of an era. Horror films continue to be made of course, but there will never be a horror star like Christopher Lee again.

Given the modern climate of slasher films and psych nightmares, it might be hard to imagine was a groundbreaking film Horror of Dracula was. Previous horror films were in muted black and white, and vampires never attacked their victims on screen.  Not so Mr Lee's Dracula who bit his victims in full view of the cameras and made it clear he was doing far more that quenching his thirst.  It was this film that made vampires sexy, an approach followed by nearly every screen Dracula since.  

Mr Lee would play Dracula numerous times, as well as the Frankenstein Monster, Fu Manchu, The Mummy, Dr Jeckyll and many more, often in tandem with Peter Cushing.  Films were often typed as horror genre simply because he was in them. He could have just continued to work in the horror genre, but he sought work as well, in films like The Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeeers, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (At one time or another he would play both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, as well as Sir Henry Baskerville).

My favorite Christopher Lee movie is without a doubt The Wicker Man. (1973)  As a Lord Summerisle he is the leader of an island of pagans who must deal with a police inspector come to search for a missing child.  To say any more would be to spoil the film, so I will make only two further comments--make sure you see the restored or directors cut, and stay very, very far away from the dreadful remake with Nic Cage. 

   Photo Cinephilia cc 2.0

One of the things that stands out about his performance in the film is the sense of authority he brings, and this is true of many of his films.  For good or ill, he's in command.  No matter how trite the plot or dreadful the special effects, he believes it and so we do too.

Horror films today are built around scary special effects.  Occasionally a mainstream star appears in one, but then they go back to other kinds of films.  The idea of an actor building a career of 60 some years of supernatural villiany seems unlikely today.

Plus there was so much more about him in addition to the 200 plus films he appeared in: a cultured man who spoke six languages and could fake a couple more; a man who served in British special forces in WWII, classified missions that he never talked about, but he was able to assure Peter Jackson on the set of Lord of the Rings that he knew exactly how a man sounded when he had been stabbed in the back. He was also the only member of the cast to have met J R R Tolkien, and a man who read the trilogy yearly for much of his adult life.  In the wake of his 21st century performances, people seemed to realize what a unique treasure and he received a knighthood and a life achievement award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

One of the greatest pleasures for parents of watching films like Lord of the Rings (or Harry Potter) is to watch your children discover actors you loved and take them as their own.  When the news broke of Sir Christopher's death my son texted me:

"He happened to be one of my favorite English actors.  And the only one I could pick up from the rest of them."

The Boy is right, there was no mistaking Christopher Lee, all 6'5" of villianous authority. Many, Many movies are better for his presence. Cinema almost certainly will  never see the like of him again.

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