After the death of Christopher Lee last week, it was interesting to see that so many of the stories about his death spent so much ink on his having been a participant in the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
Not that those weren’t significant and deserving milestones in Lee’s later life as an actor. They certainly were. And it’s significant not just that he was still making pictures into his 80s and 90s but also that he was still playing vital roles in major movies.
But for me, and perhaps for other baby boomers out there, the name Christopher Lee is more associated with the Hammer horror films of the 1950s and ’60s, in the same way that Boris Karloff was associated with Universal horror films in the 1930s and ’40s.
In his way, Lee was the Karloff of the next generation.
Karloff was a British actor who labored in small character parts for several years before finally making his movie mark as the monster in “Frankenstein” (1931), then as “The Mummy” (1932), followed by myriad horror films, including three “Frankenstein” sequels. He and Bela Lugosi, who starred as “Dracula” (1931), had parallel careers and were often paired up.
Lee was also a British actor who labored in small character parts for several years before finally making his movie mark as the creature in “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), then as Dracula (1958, released in America as “Horror of Dracula”) and “The Mummy” (1959), followed by myriad horror films, including six “Dracula” sequels. He and Peter Cushing, who starred as Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing in those first two films, had parallel careers and were often paired up.
When I was a kid, I watched all the old creaky black-and-white Karloff and Lugosi pictures on our boxy 13-inch television, and even though I also read Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker’s novels, the movies are really what shaped my ideas of what these characters were like.
That is, until the one-two punch of “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula,” which I saw for the first time a few years after their initial release on a double bill. It turned my monster world upside down.
Seeing Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula terrorizing the English countryside in vivid color on a 40-foot screen, in movies that boasted lavish production values, quicker pacing, more flamboyant performances and a vigorous musical score, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention for the length of both films.
“Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula” also pushed the violence, blood and sex further than had been allowed in earlier films, causing some controversy in their day — although by today’s standards, they’re pretty tame. Today, the blood looks like bright red paint and the sex is primarily come-hither looks from women in frilly, low-cut blouses. (Some of the later 1960s and ’70s entries pushed things even further into R-rated territory.)
After his debut in the Frankenstein and Dracula films, Lee’s name on the credits was enough to pique my interest.
Lee made a lot of movies — more than 200 over the length of his 66-year career. Plus some 60-plus TV appearances.
He arrived on the screen in 1948, and here we are in 2015 with two new films awaiting release with Lee’s name in the list of cast members.
In addition to horror movies, Lee’s filmography includes dramas, comedies, fantasies, Westerns, epics, small independent productions, serious literary adaptations, broad slapstick farces, brooding theater pieces … you name it. Horror films are actually a rather small percentage.
To younger moviegoers, of course, it’s only natural that Lee will always be Count Dooku and Saruman.
But for baby boomers like me, he’ll always be a pitiable Frankenstein’s creature, an eerie and scary Mummy and, of course, a sensual and terrifying Count Dracula.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.