The only story in the worlds of horror and heavy metal today is the passing of Sir Christopher Lee, the legendary actor, musician and author. Although this is the second obituary I’ve done on my blog this week–the first being for historian and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi–there’s no way I could not honor Lee with an article summarizing his career, his genius and trying to put into words what he meant to generations of fans. He truly was an amazing and interesting person. He will be remembered by millions of people as the voice and face of everything epic, from Gothic horror films to high fantasy, and some of the most bombastic and thrilling heavy metal albums ever recorded. People are calling him the Prince of Darkness because of his association with Dracula, but he deserves to be known as the Prince of Epic.
What’s so great about Christopher Lee’s career–aside, of course, from his acting talent and his amazing baritone voice–is that each generation will probably remember him differently. Younger fans will identify him instantly from the Lord of the Rings films and the Star Wars prequels. Older fans, like me, instinctively associate him with Dracula and the Hammer horror franchise. James Bond and the Wicker Man fall somewhere in between.
Lee’s first film was in 1947, called Corridor of Mirrors, directed by Terence Young who would go on to make several James Bond films. (Lee’s career is full of crossovers like this). After an upward trajectory through increasingly prestigious films–including the Roman epic Quo Vadis and Olivier’s Hamlet–his real stardom struck in 1957 when he was given the role of Frankenstein’s monster in a new production of the horror classic being made by a low-budget British studio called Hammer Films. On the shoot of Horror of Frankenstein, Lee met Peter Cushing, with whom he would become deep friends. It’s doubtful that either man could have become a horror icon without the other. Their teamwork and onscreen chemistry resulted in several smash hits that put Hammer on the map and redefined cinematic horror forever, including Horror of Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959), Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and many more.
The thrilling climax of Horror of Dracula (1958) showcases how well Christopher Lee and his friend Peter Cushing worked together.
But Lee’s life was more than just the movies. His whole life was an adventure. He was a spy during World War II, carrying off difficult intelligence missions in Italy, North Africa and Germany. Actually his career as a spy was a fallback–he originally started flying biplane fighters for the RAF in Africa. At the end of the war the British intelligence service sent him out to chase Nazi war criminals, because Lee conveniently happened to speak French and German fluently. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.
Once he got into films, Lee worked all the time, and he seemed to know everybody. In fascinating foreshadowings of his future career prospects, he was a distant relative of James Bond creator (and fellow WWII spy) Ian Fleming, and Lee also once met J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of the Lord of the Rings novels. His list of movie credits is reputedly the longest ever for an actor on the Internet Movie Database, featuring not just the pictures he’s known for, but little-remembered films like Arabian Adventure, which I remember seeing in the theater on my birthday way back in 1979, or the dreadfully silly TV movie Goliath Awaits. He could also do comedy, as showcased in the superhero spoof The Return of Captain Invincible or as Willy Wonka’s dad in the 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was such a great and ebullient personality, and those who worked with him for years, like Peter Cushing, consistently attested that he was an incredibly nice man, a pleasure to know and work with.
Christopher Lee sings! Here he is with Rhapsody of Fire on the “Magic of the Wizard’s Dream” single. Amazingly, he also cut versions in German, French and Italian.
Of course you couldn’t make the James Bond franchise without using Christopher Lee as a villain at least once. It came to be his turn in 1974 as Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun, which is a terrible Bond film–except for Lee’s amazing performance. Lee also seemed the obvious choice for the evil wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy, whose power comes in part by bewitching people with his voice. Lee’s voice was incredibly rich and sonorous. You couldn’t imagine an evil supervillain sounding like anyone else, except maybe Orson Welles.
Lee put his voice to work in the cause of the music he loved, which–and this surprises many people–was heavy metal. He loved metal, the more epic-sounding the better. Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar were said to be his favorites. In the 2000s Rhapsody of Fire, which tends to put out concept albums with a lot of narration, finally got Lee to narrate for them, and more: in 2005 he actually sang backup on the single for a song “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream.” He recorded his own heavy metal album, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which I sadly admit I have not heard, in 2010. He recorded several other metal albums and singles over the next few years, the last one coming out just a year ago. There’s so much crossover between the fans of heavy metal, horror and science fiction that Lee often wins a “triple crown” in the hearts of fans. I think this accounts for the incredible outpouring of emotion and tribute today.
My all time favorite Christopher Lee role was Rasputin in Rasputin, The Mad Monk. This scene is devastating!
With as many highs as Lee had in his immensely long and wonderful career, it’s difficult to pick a favorite, and my all-time favorite Lee performance may strike some as an obscure one. But I honestly think the richest, most terrifying, most truly epic performance Lee ever gave was as the Russian mystic Rasputin in the 1966 Hammer horror film Rasputin, The Mad Monk. The film is pure schlock and historically inaccurate, but Lee’s portrayal of Rasputin, who has the power to hypnotize people (especially women) with his intense eyes, is nothing short of astonishing. That he gave this quality performance as part of just another week’s work–Rasputin was a cheap quickie filmed back-to-back with one of Lee’s Dracula pictures–is a testament to how the vivacity of his acting was so natural.
We will all miss Christopher Lee. He was truly an incredible talent and an amazing human being. In the afterlife that befits the best heavy metal warriors, I imagine Lee hoisting a tankard of ale in Valhalla right now, while the sounds of Manowar and Judas Priest shake the pillars of the sky. Farewell, sir. And thank you.