With the sad demise of Sir Christopher Lee, film fans worldwide are reflecting on the legendary actor’s staggering legacy of over 280 screen credits. While his body of work took in a wide range of cinema, surely the genre with which Lee has always been most closely associated is the horror film.
From his first role with Britain’s renowned Hammer Films in 1957′s ‘Curse of Frankenstein,’ and most notably with his succession of appearances as Count Dracula, Lee became one of the few true icons of the genre - even if this wasn’t always to his liking.
Lee made no secret of his dislike of the term ‘horror,’ preferring to regard his supernatural films as fantastic cinema. On top this, while he is held up as one of the screen’s finest Draculas thanks to his chilling, thrilling performance in 1958′s classic ‘Dracula’ AKA ‘Horror of Dracula,’ he would come to resent the role.
Lee would portray the iconic vampire a further seven times for Hammer, ending with 1973′s ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula,’ a somewhat trashy sequel to the the modern day spin-off ‘Dracula AD 1972.’
An honourable man through and through, Lee would continue to reprise the role he had long since grown tired of out of a sense of obligation to Hammer, to whom he largely owed his career. Of his decision to finally abandon the role in 1973, Lee would later say, “in my opinion the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day and age, that it really no longer had any meaning.”
Still, while he grew disillusioned with Hammer’s treatment of the character, Lee felt enough connection to the role to reprise it outside of Hammer for Spanish director Jess Franco in 1970′s ‘Count Dracula,’ a more faithful take on Bram Stoker’s novel.
Lee’s ties to horror cinema were more than professional, however. He shared his birthday, 27th May, with another of the great horror actors, Vincent Price, with whom he was firm friends - but Lee’s dearest friend of all was the actor with whom he was most closely associated, Peter Cushing (himself born a day earlier on 26th May).
Cushing and Lee’s first meeting on the set of ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ is said to have seen Lee (who played the monster) loudly complain about having no lines, to which Cushing (who played Baron Frankenstein) reportedly replied, “you’re lucky, I’ve read the script.”
This set in motion a professional collaboration which would see the two men share the screen a total of 24 times, including three ‘Dracula’ films, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ and several anthology horror films for Hammer’s rival studio Amicus.
Beyond this, Cushing and Lee remained the very best of friends all the way up Cushing’s death in 1994.
Reflecting on their friendship, Lee once said, “I don’t want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much.
“That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often.
“And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”
Sir Christopher Lee may not have enjoyed the title of ‘horror legend,’ but there can be no question he earned it - and it seems fair to say we’ll never see another screen icon quite like him again.
Picture Credit: Hammer, BFI, WENN