Sir Christopher Lee – the actor who stood at 6ft 4 and starred in over 200 movies – was not only a cinematic titan who towered in the literal sense, but one who reached the heights of consummate merit and tremendous skill. In his lengthy filmography he was bound to feature in a few filmic duds – but never once in his career did he ever give a bad performance. Look back on any of his films and you will see how his charisma and commitment to the most bizarre lines of clunky dialogue are always treated with the upmost reverence and sincerity. Simply put, Christopher Lee was a rare breed of actor that elevated every film he featured in.
As J. R. R. Tolkien’s Saruman and George Lucas’s Count Dooku he won legions of new fans in his later career. But it was Count Dracula that first immortalised him as a pop culture legend, with Bram Stoker’s vampire one of the many horror roles he would come to play. Indeed, there is no actor who better represents the horror genre in its principle of the fantastic, its power to frighten, and its promise to entertain. Having passed away in 2015, Sir Lee has left a resplendent legacy of horror movies that continue to be enjoyed today. His films are required viewing for any self-respecting horror fan and those who love to be scared.
10. House of the Long Shadows (1983)
American author Kenneth Magee (Desi Armaz) intends to write a classic gothic novel in one night during his stay in a ruinous Welsh manor. Things naturally go askew when the grizzly Brisbane family, who have haunted the manor for generations, decide to hold a reunion.
This horror comedy’s moderate twists hardly compensate for its tame thrills, meandering pace, and wooden acting from an unlikable Armaz. But we’re not watching this film for him or any of the other young performers who pepper this spooky story. Oh no. However cheesy this movie is, it is made watchable by featuring the great Mount Rushmore of horror actors – Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and John Carradine – all together in one picture for the first and only time. As viewers we are witnessing the Brisbane reunion, but as horror fans we are enjoying the assembling of these friends and masters of the field of fright.
These four acclaimed veterans electrify the film with their excellent dynamic chemistry, deliciously chewing scenes with as much gusto as to be expected. Cushing’s comedic role is particularly wonderful, as of course is Lee – in one scene wielding a rather awesome medieval axe that – to the film’s credit – is used to great gory affect. It is a joy to see all of these players in one picture, so enjoy it for that. A meeting of the greats, worth the watch for any diehard horror fan. Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a “bitch” is not to be missed!
9. Horror Express (1972)
Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) and Dr Wells (Peter Cushing) are two rival anthropologists who join forces on the Trans-Siberian Express when the cargo of a frozen ape thaws from a thousand-year sleep, renewing its bloodlust to devour, destroy and possess…
Lee and Cushing are always a devilishly good duo, proving to be one of the great cinematic pairings for the ages. Moreover, director Eugenio Martin orchestrates a zipping spirit of romance and adventure, from the journey into a Manchurian cave that displays the frozen ape in all its gruesome glory, to the opulent oriental train and its plush dinning hall, reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. Telly Savalas helps this film reach peak 70s by playing a crazed Cossak officer, bringing extra swash-buckle to a romp that can be too goofy for its own good.
Its extra-terrestrial twist may be strange, even silly, but its choice to venture into the realm of science fiction is also bold and commendable, helped by the film’s makeup excellence and an unwillingness to shy from the violent conquests of this otherworldly being, akin to Alien (1979) avant la lettere. Yes, its ambition is overwrought, the cause for its muddled ideas – all at once being a creature feature, a zombie flick, a science fiction film, and a period piece set in the Edwardian Era – but never once does it fail to be an entertaining ride for horror fans…
8. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The first Hammer film to feature on this list, and certainly not the last. This British production company was instrumental in shaping horror throughout the 1950s and 60s, with the mighty Christopher Lee being one of its principal players. Here he plays Mary Shelley’s monster opposite Peter Cushing’s ambitious Victor Frankenstein. The film is strongly reverent to the novel which is certainly its greatest strength. Its retrospective storytelling and focus on the more monstrous side of the creator than his creation, from orphaned boy to cold-blooded scientist, charts an overall tremendous tale of temptation and transgression.
That is not to say that this bildungsroman forgets to be horrific and bloody, with crimson reds and green laboratory vats being Hammer’s speciality. Director and acclaimed horror filmmaker Terence Fisher does not shy from his predilection for violence. Brains are bludgeoned against walls, eyeballs are dissected on, and a body is sent flying down the stairs.
Yet the film’s ultimate grotesque is found in Christopher Lee’s creature – his grey decaying skin and marionette movements galvanising an ungainly horrific afterlife. It is a shame that Lee does not have much to do, appearing only in the last 30 minutes, which will be frustrating to those who come to see a Frankenstein movie and are eagerly awaiting the creature’s arrival. Nevertheless, a fun, violent, charming adaption of Shelley’s novel.
7. The Mummy (1958)
When the mummified Kharis (Christopher Lee) is disturbed by unruly archaeologists, this ancient high-priest vows to hunt and punish those who disturbed his eternal beauty sleep.
Once again, Hammer virtuoso Terence Fisher is our director, not only delivering hammy horror, but also crafting a film that is rich in its world-building, from frequent mention of Egyptian mythos to actualising that mythos through stunning set designs of tombs and temples, offering an ancient world of gold and bronze, brimming in Egyptian iconography.
Christopher Lee’s mummy is something of a marvel, giving the classic monster a much needed thunderous physicality that was never seen before – something to be applauded, considering most of his acting is done only through his eyes, which gleam between the bandages like wet scarab beetles under a Cairo sun. The costume itself is excellent. Both pulpy and muddy, the look, feel and actions of the mummy have never been more terrifying. Lee plays him as an unstoppable force. Gone is the expected lethargic snail-speed – here is a creature hell-bent on causing terror, smashing walls, strangling men – and in one memorable sequence breaking into an asylum and killing a delirious old man. Truly terrifying stuff…
6. Dracula (1958)
Certainly Christopher Lee had many iconic roles throughout his long distinguished career; but the first one, and arguably his most indelible portrayal, is of course Count Dracula. This 1958 Hammer production, once again directed by the tremendous Terence Fisher, is a very faithful gothic retelling of Bram Stoker’s work, before Lee would return to Dracula in a number of sequels that worsened in quality, much to the chagrin of the actor and his fans. Here, however, Lee is mesmeric as the Count, filling doorways with his impressive stature. Seemingly courteous and civilised, there is an overall sneaky feline quality to his performance. Yes, he can be loquacious when he needs to be, but privately he stalks the night like a libidinous beast, lecherously baring his fangs before pouncing on his prey’s jugular.
There is also the matter of Lee excelling in the Count’s aristocratic nature – this being an incarnation who keeps a personal well-stocked library to while away the hours. Lee expertly embodies this yesteryear quality, his dusty deterioration being a fitting end for such a relic. His final fight scene with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is a sensational marriage of stunt work and special effects; and though his screen time as the Count is limited in this film, the actor’s charismatic presence is always felt. That being said, whilst his performance is unforgettable, there were other less-heralded, meatier roles for Lee to sink his teeth into…