Long before stars like Tom Cruise and Robert De Niro jumped into the crypt, British bogeyman Christopher Lee gave the gothic monster genre a transfusion for a new generation. In 21 movies for England’s Hammer Films, beginning with 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein, Lee portrayed all the spooky greats: the mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and, in nine films, Count Dracula. Here, in the Halloween spirit, Lee recalls his horrific screen lives.
*HORROR OF DRACULA (1958, Warner) The Dracula films I appeared in gradually deteriorated over the years, but this, the first one, was pretty good. What distinguished it from the others was the spirit of it, the impact of the character: the enormous sensual power of blood, a being possessed with enormous physical strength, unstoppable from the men’s point of view, irresistible from the women’s point of view. And of course, one particular element that I brought to the part — which I don’t think necessarily was there in the Bram Stoker book but I felt was important — the sadness of the character. The terrible sentence, the doom of immortality; it was an inner demon that drove him to do these terrible things that he could not control. That was my own personal approach. It seemed to work.
*SCREAM OF FEAR (1961, Columbia TriStar) One of the best pictures Hammer Films ever produced — one of their most understated, certainly one of the most subtle. It was a very frightening film, but not at all in the gothic vein. Very modern, very contemporary. But again, there was an awful lot of suggestion in that film, which, to me, makes something really frightening — it’s what you don’t see, not what you do. In Scream of Fear, there was always that uneasy feeling of something going on that wasn’t quite right. But you didn’t see it.
*THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971, Prism) An anthology film that I thought was very good and very funny. The humor was only in the last story, really; the preceding stories were quite alarming. I was in the story in which my character’s young daughter turned out to be a witch. It isn’t easy working with children of that age, especially this child. She had a passion for kicking people, and she kicked me once, in the ankle. I didn’t say anything. Then the scene came where I had to slap her … I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. She didn’t kick me again.
*THE WICKER MAN (1975, Media) One of my films that’s become a cult movie. I don’t think anyone had ever seen a film quite like it, an extraordinary mix of paganism and religion, birth and rebirth, belief and disbelief. A romantic, erotic, exotic, frightening film. It’s the best script and best part I’ve ever had. And, if I may judge, the best performance I’ve ever given. The part was written for me (by playwright Anthony Shaffer), which doesn’t happen very often.
*HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1982, MGM/UA) That was a lot of fun to make, with the four of us [John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Lee] together. I thought it was very entertaining because of the four of us, the way we fit in together. This was one of the last times Peter and I appeared together. As for why we made such a good team: We seemed to complement each other remarkably well, both as individuals and as actors. Peter, very reserved, very withdrawn, very quiet, very humble. I’m reserved and withdrawn, but I’m not particularly quiet, and not particularly humble. We were totally unalike in that way, which may have been why it worked.