Like many of you, I woke up to some very sad news today. Sir Christopher Lee passed away at age 93 after having lived a life worthy of a Marvel Comics super hero. As a huge horror fan who grew up with Lee’s work (as well his contemporaries Vincent Price and Peter Cushing), I felt I should write up this piece to pay tribute to the man. In light of such greatness, I feel my words are inadequate; his life was full of adventure and great accomplishments that it makes me feel writing this is somewhat trivial. Despite those things, I felt I should give a somewhat brief statement on what the loss means to our community, and to the entertainment industry in general.
There were four gentlemen of horror: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, John Carradine, and Christopher Lee. From the baby boomers to generation X, a legion of fans were born who grew up on their films. They were legends of cinema, their life experience and education permeated all of their roles and there was no doubt we were watching greatness. We lost Carradine in 1988, Price in 1993, and Cushing in 1994. Lee was the last of his kind, a living legend, who turned out some of his most iconic work in his 70s and 80s.
Though his most well known character is Dracula, which he portrayed in seven films over a fifteen year period, my first exposure to Sir Lee was in the super-hero musical The Return of Captain Invincible. Lee played the evil Mr. Midnight in a role that had him chewing scenery, cracking jokes, dancing and singing! The film is absolutely nuts and unfortunately much maligned and over-looked. This is unfortunate because it’s one that showcases what a tremendous talent Lee was. He can channel his innate malevolent presence and give you chills staring into the camera with his Easter Island statuesque demeanor, but then have you singing along with him later as he tries to best Alan Arkin’s alcoholic superhero character by tempting him into relapsing.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered his incredible Dracula films in which he often faced off with his best friend Peter Cushing, who played as Van Helsing. These are the films that haunted the video stores, played on late nights on TV, and cemented his legacy in horror. Arguably, Lee was the greatest of his contemporaries it’s sad to think just how long he lived past his friends. Cushing’s dead was a hard blow for Lee to take. Lee said about Cushing “He was the gentlest and most generous of men”. Despite that, Lee made the most of the last two decades of his life and managed a career resurgence as playing the heavy in both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, before going on to record a few heavy metal albums in his 80s! Despite our feelings on the Star Wars prequels, I think we can agree seeing Christopher Lee having a light-saber duel with Yoda was the best part of that series. It was also great to see him play as part of the evil Galactic Empire, which Peter Cushing was also a part of in A New Hope.
Though he often played the villain, in real life he was much more like his heroic role in The Devil Rides Out. A consummate gentleman, Lee was no stranger too pointing out his disgust with the way horror films evolved into gore fests. He believed his contributions to horror films to be “fantasy films” as they had no basis in reality. This has been a point of contention between him and horror fans because it was his work in Hammer Films that ushered in blood in the genre. However, after serving in World War II he knew real life violence all to well, and increasingly felt the world was a horrible place and off track. It is his wish to star in only “fantasy” films that led him to decline the offer as Dr. Samuel Loomis in Halloween. The role went to fellow James Bond villain actor Donald Pleasence, and Lee has said that not taking the role is one of the greatest mistakes in his career. Though one has to wonder given his views on the genre how he’d react to the later sequels which became increasingly violent.
The believability of his evil persona in film led someone to start a rumor that Lee owned a library of 20,000 occult books; a rumor destroyed by Lee in a speech at the University of College in Dublin in which he said he owned maybe four or five, and went out to advise students against studying the occult. Lee told them ” “I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind, you’ll lose your soul”.
He was truly a titan of cinema, but first and foremost a gentleman and a scholar who deserved his knighthood in 2009. Lee left behind his wife of fifty years, Brigit Kroncke Lee and their daughter Christina after having recently celebrated his 93rd birthday. Much like the role of Dracula, his films and legacy will never die. He was the last of his kind and we’ll never see another generation like them ever again. He will forever be remembered as not only a horror icon, but a real life hero, and a heavy metal superstar.
There will never be another like Christopher Lee.
God speed, old friend.
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