Victor Frankenstein threw open the door to his laboratory and froze in shock. Before him stood the gauze-wrapped corpse he had built with his own hands from dead limbs and organs alive, its chest heaving with each gasp for breath. The creature stood, dazed, gently rocking on thin legs, its arms held stiffly at its side. With one swift motion, as though sensing the presence of its creator, Victor 's creature suddenly reached up and tore away the bandages swathing its head to reveal the face of a demon. What sort of freakish monstrosity had Victor brought into god's world? What hideous corpse-thing?
With this one brief, but effective, sequence The Curse of Frankenstein Hammer Film Productions introduced to the world of cinema horror, an unknown and obscure actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Both the company and the actor were new to the fantasy film business. Little did they realize that each would help the other become famous throughout the world, for Lee was to be nurtured and molded by the shock experts at Hammer into becoming the new Prince of Horror. Eventually, the very name "Lee" would rival his parent company at the box office.
Before being asked by the executives at Bray Studios to play their new Frankenstein monster in 1956, Christopher Lee had been a struggling bit player -a face in the crowd in a long succession of minor British programmers. While his list of film credits grew, his fame hardly followed suit. When he had begun his motion picture career in 1947, Lee managed to land a contract with the J. Arthur Bank Corporation.
"But I practically didn't work at all," he recalled, illustrating the kind of career he led before Hammer came along. "And I took any job I could find in films and the theater." There was no fame or fortune in pictures like Corridors of Mirrors (1947), Lee's first appearance on the screen; Throttle True (1948);Prelude To Fame (1949); or Capt. Horatio Hornblower (1950). The lists can go on and on, totaling almost 30 films before Hammer hired Lee to appear in what was his first fright role.
The Curse of Frankenstein, Lee insisted later, "gave me the only real 'monster' part I have played and it was the only real 'horror'picture." In the role of Frankenstein's spastic, homicidal creation. Lee "reached for the human being trapped within the outershell," a technique which he would use for his later monster roles with fantastic success.
Lee researches his roles intelligently and in depth, working from the inside out, so to speak. Once he has the character firmly developed within his mind, he then turns to its physical appearance in very much the same manner practiced by that master of grotesque characterizations, Lon Chaney, Sr. The result was the most realistic Frankenstein monster ever put on film. Lee's portrayal was an enigmatic one, presenting the creature as both a murderous fiend and a tortured agonized animal.
The Curse of Frankenstein , the genuine pathos invoked by his performance equaled and at times surpassed the classic Karloff concept of 1932. Curse of Frankenstein is note worthy not only as a film, but for the lasting friendship it formed between the two stars, Christopher Lee and an actor named Peter Cushing. Strangely enough, Lee and Cushing had previously both appeared together in Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1953) without meeting! As they had no scenes to play together,they never saw one another on the sets.
That event was reserved for The Curse of Frankenstein , the result being one of the warmest and most sincere friendships in the film world. Lee likes to refer to his partner in screen mayhem as his "great and good friend". Peter Cushing recalled later, "I first met Mr. Christopher Lee in his makeup for the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. It is no wonder that when I passed him in the corridor after the day's shooting I didn't recognize the tall good looking stranger who said, 'Goodnight, Peter!!
This was in 1956 and since then I have found him to be a man of extra ordinary and diverse talent." "A first-rate swordsman, an excellent singer, a golf champion, master of nearly all languages, and with more than a smattering of knowledge about any subject you care to discuss." "And apart from his ability as an actor, he is a most accomplished mimic.On top of all this, he is a most amusing and very dear loyal friend."
Fortunately for film fans the world over, Hammer Productions recognized the magic "screen chemistry" shared by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and decided to team them for future fright films. Each time, however, Lee usually found himself on the losing end of every situation, even when his good friend wasn't exactly a "heroic" figure himself.
In The Curse of Frankenstein , released by Warner Bros in 1957, Cushing played the crazed Baron Frankenstein, driven to the brink of insanity by his obsession with creating life from death. He was still allowed to count Lee out in the end before getting the guillotine treatment. Anthony Hinds produced Jimmy Sangster's script as the first of Hammer's remake series, with Terence Fisher directing.
Fisher, incidentally, wasn't unfamiliar with actor Lee, for they had worked together in Lee's fourth picture, Song For Tomorrow (1948). Horror of Dracula -released by Universal in 1958, tells of the death of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) at the hands of the vampire king (Lee) and of the attempt made by Harker's friend, Dr. Van Helsing (Cushing) to track the monster down. Dracula eludes Van Helsing and kills Harker's fiancee, Lucy (Carol Marsh). Van Helsing frees Lucy's soul, but Dracula kidnaps the wife of Lucy 's brother, Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough). Holmwood and Van Helsing pursue Dracula to his castle, where Holmwood saves his wife Melissa Stribling) as Van Helsing destroys the vampire with the aid of two crossed candlesticks anda shaft of morning sunlight.
Horror of Dracula had established Christopher Lee as a master of the macabre, thanks to the impressive production values and fine scripts Hammer Films gave him to work with. He began getting a large amount of film offers on the strength of hisDracula portrayal alone. In that same year (1958), he appeared in another horror picture, but not for Hammer.
It was The Doctor of Seven Dials and he played the part of a grave robber, "Resurrection Joe," opposite the King of Horror- Boris Karloff. (MGM finally released this film in 1963 as Corridors of Blood). In fact, of the five pictures Lee made in 1958, four of them were suspense fantasies. Christopher Lee was beginning to be type cast. The following year proved the most active for Lee at the Bray Studios where he made in rapid successionThe Hound of the Baskervilles,The Mummy and The Man Who Could Cheat Death. Judging from the fabulous success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula Hammer realized they had a good and profitable thing going for them by teaming Lee with Peter Cushing.
The third Cushing Lee effort was The Hound of the Baskervilles, released by United Artists in June of 1959. In it, Lee played a perfectly straight role (his first at Hammer) as "Sir Henry Baskerville," doomed to die under the Baskerville Curse. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, a legend states that all theLords of Baskerville Hall for the past 200 years have been killed by the Hound of Hell. Sir Henry (Lee) scoffs at the idea, but his physician friend, Dr. Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) takes the liberty of requesting the invaluable aid of Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing ) and Holmes' assistant, Dr. Watson (Andre Morell). Holmes reveals through "elementary deduction" that Sir Henry is indeed 104 years old.
He stays alive through a grisly gland transplant operation renewed every ten years, and through the powers of a strange elixir. One day, George, in a rage, kills his assistant in the experiment, Dr. Weiss (Arnold Marle). With Weiss gone, Georges blackmails Pierre (Lee) into going through with the operation by holding Pierre's sweetheart, Janine (Hazel Court), hostage. Once the operation is completed, Georges rush back to Janine. To his horror, he suddenly finds himself shriveling away as a man of 104. Pierre has betrayed him, only pretending to perform the operation. Finally, Janine is rescued by Pierre as Georges perishes in a fire set by his former mistress, Margo (Delphi Lawrence), whom Georges had disfiguredand imprisoned in the basement of his home.
The Library Journal stated: "New horror films have been presented us with such Technicolored elegance and high production values. Not all of the elements of the plot are completely explained when the film comes to an end, but during the time it is unfolded, it induces 'suspension of disbelief."
Christopher Lee worked in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll the following year, 1960, playing the part of a Victorian dandy, Paul Allen, " aweak but attractive man-about-town who is a passionate gambler." Lee personally considers " Paul Allen " one of the best roles of his career. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll was seen in England under that title, but American fans saw it as House of Fright upon its release by American International in 1961.
Paul Massie, as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, discovers the secret of separating man's two conflicting inner personalities, Good and Evil, and eventually does away with his unfaithful wife, Kitty (Dawn Addams), and her lover, Paul Allen (Lee), who meets a gruesome death entwined in the slimy coils of a snake dancer's python. Dr. Jekyll finally decides to destroy Hyde, but in so doing, he also kills himself. On April 21, 1960, Lee began filming Hammer's The Terror of The Tongs and completed his work in a record time of two weeks.
He starred as "Chung King," the cruel leader of a Chinese Tong in Hong Kong. The Tong, for those who don't know, was an organization dedicated to crime and murder, dealing in the latter with efficient hatchets. The film was premiered in San Francisco on March 17, 1961, by Columbia. In The Terror of The Tongs, the Red Dragon Tong, a secret society terrorizing Hong Kong in 1910, murders young Helena Jackson (Barbara Brown),the daughter of a merchant seaman, Capt. Jackson (Geoffrey Toone) Capt Jackson vows to destroy the Tong and wins the aid of Lee (Yvonne Monlaur),a beautiful Tong slave.
Lee is killed by a Tong hatchet man when she tries to warn Jackson of a Tong assassination masterminded by the vicious Chung King (Lee). Finally, the Red Dragon Tong is destroyed by Capt Jackson and the Hong Kong police. Chung King chooses death at the hands of his own hatchet man.
"Christopher Lee, a Hammer Film regular, will be familiar to horror devotees and again he is effectively suave and evil in Mandarin makeup." -Box Office.
Just as 1960 was drawing to a close, Christopher Lee appeared in yet another Hammer Film on November 10 entitled Taste of Fear, later released as Scream of Fear by Columbia in 1961. Lee played the part of "Dr. Gerald Pierre," a French psychiatrist. Scream of Fear was a psychological who-dun-it, the first of many by Jimmy Sangster, and is considered by Lee as his best over all film.
Set on the French Riviera, the picture tells of the efforts of a young girl (Susan Strasberg) to discover whether or not her missing father is really dead or if someone is trying to drive her insane. Her father's corpse keeps popping up all over the place, yet her stepmother (Ann Todd) and gentle Dr. Pierre (Lee) insist she 's only just imagining things.
Perhaps there 's a plot afoot to drive the poor girl mad and rob her of her inheritance. But who could do such a thing" There are enough shocks in Scream Of Fear to short-circuit the entire Riviera," said Modern Screen.
In 1961, Lee did only one Hammer film, Jimmy Sangster 's The Pirates of Blood River, released by Columbia in 1962. He began filming around June of '61, playing the part of the vicious "Capt La Roche," complete with black eye patch and a withered, crippled arm. Capt La Roche (Lee), the leader of a band of gold lusting pirates, captures Jonathan Standing (Kerwin Matthews), a young Huguenot who has escaped from the merciless, unrelenting grip of his father, Jason. Jonathan is forced to direct the pirates back to his father's settlement.
La Roche soon conquers the Huguenot defenders, believing they possess golden treasures. Through the efforts of Bess (Marla Landi) Jonathan attains his freedom from La Roche and returns to lead the Huguenot captives in a bloody revolt against their pirate captors. La Roche meets his death at the end of a sword. " A most impressive characterization from that incorrigible Bad man ofthe screen, Christopher Lee," said Britain's ABC Film Review. The year 1962 was rather barren for Lee when it came to his film career, forhe made only two pictures, both in Italy.
Finally, in 1963, he returned to Bray to star in a script written especially for him by Jimmy Sangster. Called Devil Ship Pirate, it was released by Columbia during the summer of 1964. Lee began filming his role as "Capt. Robeles" on August 19, 1963. As Capt. Robeles, Lee leads a band of Spanish cut throats who land atan isolated English village in 1588 after escaping the defeat of the Armada. They fool the inhabitants of the village into thinking the Spanish have been victorious and have taken over England, but the ruse is finally discovered.
Robeles and all his Devil Ship Pirates are destroyed in an explosive climax of sword-play and raging flames. Obviously inspired by Jimmy Sangster's previous Pirates of Blood River, producer Anthony Nelson Keys promisedthat Devil-Ship Pirates would be in the same tradition, with "plenty of rip roaring battles, sword-fights, brawls, suspense and action; not to mention three very pretty girls."
Just as the year 1963 was drawing to a close, Lee came back to Brayto begin filming The Gorgon on December 17. He starred as "Prof Meister" and was reunited with his good friend Peter Cushing after a separation of almost five years after The MummyColumbia released The Gorgon in February of 1965. Lee 's Prof Meister, a gruff, untidy character of great brilliance, arrives in a European village to investigate some mysterious murders inwhich several people are literally turned to stone. His researches, aided by Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco), lead him to Dr. Namaroff Cushing- an eminent brain surgeon.
Namaroff is protecting Carla (Barhara Shelley) from the fact that she is possessed by the spirit of one of the Gorgons. By night she turns into a serpent haired demon with the power to turn living flesh into stone. Namaro and Heitz are both killed by Carla before Meister succeeds in cutting off her head, thus freeing Carla's tormented soul and bringing peace once more to the countryside.
Motion Picture Exhibitor said: "A bit weak as to explanation of the events that occur herein, nevertheless this entry in the exploitable horror category can be sold to fans who go for the mysterious, murders, and the blood-chilling.
She was the only Hammer film done by Lee in 1964. He began work on August 24 at Elstree Studios, playing the part of Billali, a High Priest to Ursula Andress'"She." MGM released She in July of 1965. Again, Lee co-starred with his friend, Peter Cushing. She tells of the arrival in 1918 of Leo Vincey (John Richardson), Maj.Holly (Cushing) and Job (Bernard Cribbins) at the mysterious desert kingdom of Klunla. There, Ayesha, queen of the fabulous city (Ursula Andress), informs Leo that he is the reincarnation of a lover for whom she has waited 2,000 years.
However, before Leo is led into the Elarlle of Eternal Life, he is forced to do battle with the jealous Billali (Lee), who meets death in the struggle.A desperate revolt suddenly sweeps across the city of Kuma as Leo and Ayesha walk into the Flame. To Ayesha's horror, she crumbles into dust before Leo's eyes, not having known that to enter the Elame twice meant death. Now Leo is left to live forever until the Elame returns to grant him the luxury of dying. She was generally panned by the critics, but it still managed to be among the Top Ten money-makers in Great Britain for the year 1965.
In '65, Lee began work at Bray on April 26 in the most important film of his recent career and the return of his greatest characterization. . . in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. All the greats were lined up to make this new Dracula a really tremendous one. Jimmy Sangster did the screen play (under th epseudonym of "John Sansom") and Terence Fisher directed. Unfortunately, the film suffered from the absence of Peter Cushing's excellent Prof Van Helsing. Twentieth CenturyFox released this Hammer SevenArts co-production in March of 1966.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness tells of four British tourists on a trip through Eastern Europe Charles (Francis Matthews), his wife Diana, his brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) and Alan's wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) who ignore the warnings of Father Shandor (Andrew Keir) and eventuallyf ind themselves at the sinister Castle Dracula, where a man servant, Klove, welcomes them. During the night, Alan investigates a noise and is knocked unconsciousby Klove, who then slits Alan's body open and hangs it in the cellar overthe crypt of Klove's master, Count Dracula.
Alan's dripping blood revives Dracula and he rises from the grave to transform Helen into a fiendish vampire. Charles and Diana escape to the safety of Father Shandor, who succeedsin killing Helen by driving a stake through her heart. But Dracula kidnaps Diana and rides off with her in a coach driven by love. Charles shoots after them, rescuing Diana and grapples with Dracula on the frozen moat of the vampire's castle.
Father Shandor suddenly remembers that running water is effective in destroying the undead and by firing his gun, he manages to break up the ice beneath Dracula's feet, sending him to his death in the icy water. Christopher Lee was enthusiastic about the results of Dracula -Prince of Darkness after having thought long and hard for many years about ever returning in the role. "All the stuff looks very good, "he reported after completing the picture," and the performances are every bit as effective as the first.
Sequels are never as good but I think this one may well be ever more frightening!" Lee's role was without a word of dialogue. "As I am already a vampire from the word go," he explained. "there is nothing I can say, not even a courteous "Well, here we are again, etc!"
Following Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Lee remained at Bray Studios to go right into another undertaking, the most difficult, and I also believe the most rewarding. Rasputin, described as a "roaring bull of a man' by Lee, is shown in the film as he exerts his powerful will over various beautiful women in order to fulfill his sinister plans. Being a notorious lecher, he seduces an innkeeper's daughter (Fiora Hartford), then two street womenin St. Petersburg.
Rasputin's most torrid affair however, is with Sonia (Barbara Shelley), Who he ruthlessly dominates because of her closeness to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson). Rasputin eventually gains the confidence of the Tsarina and, through her, begins to gain control of all Russia. The only woman who does not respond warmly to Rasputin is Vanessa (Suzan Farmer) who, with her brother (Francis Mathews) and the mad monk's doctor friend (Richard Pasco), finally manages to assassinate Rasputin. Rasputin The Mad Monk was released by Twentieth Century-Fox in April of 1966. Said Motion Picture Exhibitor: "Christopher Lee is indeed a competent actor, having played all manner of parts, demonstrates his ability once again by donning robes of the mad menace of Russian history and doing a very effective job. "
Rasputin is the last Hammer production starring their versatile Prince of Horror, Christopher Lee. Fans almost got to see Lee also in The Phantom of the Opera, The Scarlet Blade and The Secret of Blood Island, but he was forced to bow out for various reasons. Long may the names Christopher-Lee and Hammer Films continue to go hand in hand as exponents of fantasy film greatness. Cover Page Index