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Why Christopher Lee matters (to me)

June 11, 2015

I don’t write obits often in this column. But there’s something about the death of Christopher Lee, whose very full life ended on June 7, that feels different.

In the pre-VCR days that I grew up in, horror movie lovers were at the mercy of whatever a handful of TV station chose to broadcast (usually late at night or on weekday afternoons). That uncontrolled access explains, perhaps, why I saw Lee’s “Horror Express” a few too many times. And why I saw his Dracula films out of sequence. While waiting for TV Guide to announce that Lee's “The Mummy” or “Taste the Blood of Dracula” was showing, I’d devour issues of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” or “Monster Times,” publications where I’d inevitably encounter Lee as Dracula. Or Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Or any of a parade of Technicolor horrors.

Those films, largely made for Hammer Studios beginning in 1957, helped revive the monster movie genre after Universal Studios let them become jokes. I was too young to see those heavy cleavaged, bloody (for the time) films on screen in their original release. But I distinctly remember catching “Curse of Frankenstein” on the late movie for the first time and appreciating, even at 12 or so, how Lee and company took a very different approach to the story—and to the make-up—than the Karloff classic.

Of course, Lee’s performances went far beyond just the pantheon of classic monsters. Nobody had a career like Lee. Nobody. Beyond the Hammer horrors, he had roles in three of the biggest franchises in movie history (“Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and the James Bond series). He played arch villain Fu Manchu (in a series of now politically incorrect films unlikely to be screened often), portrayed both Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft (in different films), took on the Three Musketeers, and what else? Oh, yes, he helped save the world as a member of the British Special Forces in World War II, fighting against the Third Reich

It seems disingenuous to mourn the loss of someone who a.) I didn’t know personally, and b.) lived such a full 93 years. But, for me, Lee was the last of the horror movie greats I grew up with. Much like Karloff, there was an elegance to his work, even when the films got dangerously close to the bottom of the barrel. He was unbelievably prolific, which I hope indicated a love of his work. If he didn't love it, then he was an even better actor than I thought because he seemed to relish his roles.

I’m glad Lee got a chance to entertain a new generation of moviegoers with his work in the Rings and Star Wars franchises. And I hope that some of them will take the time to check out his other films.

Bow down Jason, Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, et al. A master has passed.

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