The incomparable Sir Christopher Lee is 90 years old today.
Yes, he was Saruman in Peter Jackson’s brilliant Lord of the Rings films — and perfect for the role, maybe partially because he was surely the one member of the acting cast who was most in love with those books, reportedly re-reading them each year. He was also the only one to have ever met J.R.R. Tolkien in the flesh.
And yes, he was a genuine piss-and-vinegar type in World War II, volunteering first for the Finns in the Winter War against the Soviet Union, and thereafter in the RAF and as an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa.
But between those two events, Lee was in literally hundreds of film roles. (IMDB lists 276 acting credits in total, from the Kaleidoscope TV series in 1946 to 2013’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again, where he will reprise his role as Saruman.
Most importantly to me, Lee played Dracula in a series from Hammer Studios — among my very favorite horror films of all time. I love them for their spot-on Gothic atmosphere and shameless melodrama; these are not films that apologize for being what they are. They chew the scenery like it was made of peanut brittle.
It was the quality of the acting — Lee and Peter Cushing chief among them — that always sold those movies to me. They might have needed such creative salesmanship because of relatively low budgets and familiar plots — but true professionals like Lee never seemed to work at bringing it home. They made it look not only effortless, but genuinely scary no matter how crazed the maniacal laughter he was called upon to issue in concert with umpteen-twenty violin stabs. Cheesy movies have never scared the ever living hell out of me the way Hammer flicks did — and still do, if I’m drunk enough, despite repeated (and I mean REPEATED) viewing of several of the best of them. If Lee ever phoned it in, then he did so the way Freddy Kruger did, if you know what I mean.
Or maybe Lee didn’t have to phone it in because the familiar — at times, even hackneyed — plots didn’t need any apology. Were they created with love, or as shameless profiteering? Fuck if I know — I suspect a little of both. The Hammer Dracula films unapologetically rehashed the Universal Horror of the ’30s with the gusto of a fanatical Rocky Horror Picture Show cast marooned in the suburbs, but with a moviemaking mojo that, on second or third or fifth viewing, remains to my eyes remarkably credible given their available resources.
If just one studio could turn out the kind of credulously reverent retellings of classic stories that Hammer did in the late ’50s through the early ’70s, I would never say one nasty word about dumbass Hollywood remakes again.
And if just one leading man could scare the living shit out of me the way Lee’s Dracula did when I first saw these flicks on Saturday afternoons, we wouldn’t need found-footage gimmicks to conjure pure terror and bona-fide storytelling.
I stand in awe, and occasionally sheer terror. Bravo, Mr. Lee; bra-MFing-vissimo.