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The Cult Films of Christopher Lee

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The Cult Films of Christopher Lee was published in 2000 and written by Jonathan Sothcott. The book takes a look at 29 'cult' films the legendary actor appeared in and includes over 400 rare photographs (many of which I believe were supplied by Lee himself). As you'd expect, the book is heavy on Hammer Horror capers but does find time to crawl out of the crypt now and again into the sunlight and dwell on some non-fanged (and Peter Cushing free) baubles of cinema. Naturally though, this book is going to be of most interest to fans of British horror rather than devotees of The Return of Captain Invincible or whatever.
The films are dissected with a decent amount of depth and while I've seen most of the films here there were some that I couldn't remember that well so I generally found the book interesting. The best chapter here is the one on The Wicker Man - this of course the cult 1973 'folk horror' that gave Lee one of his most memorable roles as the urbane and sinister Lord Summer Isle. There is a pretty good chapter too on The Man With the Golden Gun, the 1974 Roger Moore Bond film where Lee played the villain Scaramanga. The book actually starts with an introduction by Roger Moore where he pays a warm tribute to Lee.
Among the many horror pictures to have the spotlight flashed in their direction are The Creeping Flesh, The Devil Rides Out and Taste the Blood of Dracula. The author likes The Creeping Flesh a lot, this one featuring Lee and Cushing as brothers who become embroiled in a mystery involving a strange skeleton Cushing's character finds in New Guinea. The Devil Rides Out chapter is pretty good and the author explains how Lee got to play the hero for once - a sympathetic Duke who must protect people from a Satanic cult. Lee's original go as Dracula is generally held up here as the best and in the Dracula chapters there is always a lot of interesting background stuff about the production of the films and Hammer's fluctuating fortunes.
Because Lee was a such a commanding and polished presence it only took some contact lenses, a cape and a bit of make-up magic to turn him into a memorable Dracula. Christopher Le did though famously grow to dislike playing Dracula in the end as he felt he was essentially doing the same thing over and over. He really hated too those Hammer films which were set in the present day and transplanted Dracula to the groovy bell bottomed London of the early seventies. The author's style is somewhat pretentious at times but opinionated and he digs up some interesting details and bits and pieces even if you might already be familiar with most of these films. The Gothic trawl back through the hallowed halls of Hammer absorbing enough in the book. There are many anecdotes and quotes taken from those who were involved in the films.
An actor who worked on Taste the Blood of Dracula recalls Geoffrey Keen (who played the chief of staff in several Bond films) having to tangle with Madeline Smith (of Live and Let Die and numerous Frankie Howerd films and specials) for a love scene. 'Geoffrey Keen, who is a touch portly in physique, and somewhat short in temper, was given a sweet girl, dressed like a painted doll. I swear she had rickets as a child. She was skinny to the point of emaciation, the poor girl. There was Geoffrey, on all fours, with this girl astride him. He was shouting crossly, "Take the weight on your feet girl!"' Bit harsh on the lovely Madeline that story.
I enjoyed The Wicker Man chapter although if you are an expert on this film and have special edition DVDs or books on it already you probably won't pick up an awful lot that will be new to you. Lee regarded this to be the best role of his career and it was written specially for him. The Wicker Man has Edward Woodwood as a repressed policeman named Sgt Howie sent to a remote Scottish island to investigate a child's disappearance. He soon realises that everyone there is completely barmy and under the spell of spooky cult leader Christopher Lee. Howie, a devout Christian, is shocked that the locals have turned to paganism and treat both his authority and his beliefs with a mocking indifference. He begins to suspect that the missing child might be earmarked for a sacrificial fertility ritual but the case proves to be more troubling than he'd ever suspected.
The Wicker Man is beautifully paced and reveals its secrets in a clever and often strange way with a genuinely authentic sense of location and atmosphere. It's well directed by Robin Hardy and the script by Anthony Shaffer is clever and ambitious. This might be Lee's finest hour in terms of acting. His Lord Summer Isle is incredibly suave and patronising to Woodward's Howie, amused at the policeman's inability to grasp what is really happening. The folk music and pagan rituals that serve as a backdrop are at once both charming and foreboding - the line veering towards the downright creepy when characters resort to their costumes for the big festival at the end. The Wicker Man is a haunting and absorbing film that repays repeat viewings. There is nothing else quite like it. Wicker Man trivia - Diane Cilento (ex-Mrs Sean Connery) was persuaded out of semi-retirement for the part of the island's school teacher, Miss Rose.
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Christopher Lee saw The Wicker Man as a way to break out of his Dracula typecasting. The most extraordinary thing about this film is that it made almost no impact whatsoever at the time. The unhappy studio couldn't make head nor tail of it and chopped the film to pieces. The distributor initially refused to release The Wicker Man, even in Britain. All very perplexing given how good the film is. Legend has it that the original negative of the full length version was used as landfill in the M3 motorway in England! The theatrical version of The Wicker Man was cut down to 88 minutes. Christopher Lee called it a 'shadow' of the film they'd made. Lee was especially annoyed that the scene where Lord Summerisle talks about apples was excised.
The Wicker Man was (much later, when it had more cult status) restored in DVD editions in later decades. The full complete uncut version of the film has yet to emerge from wherever dusty vault it might be hiding. The film's musical arranger, Gary Carpenter said - "I have a vivid memory of having to score a phenomenally complex dream sequence for Howie, which was like post-scoring an animation, it was so intricate. The fades and dissolves and extensive use of library footage for this sequence seriously dented the budget. Despite Robin Hardy's enthusiasm for it and its inclusion in what I assumed at the time to be 'The Director's Cut', I have never seen reference made to it again and it is in no existing version of the film." Christopher Lee was furious that the film wasn't marketed very well and urged journalists to watch it.
Other films in the book include The Mummy, City of the Dead and Richard Lester's swashbuckling seventies comedy The Four Musketeers. What could have been the ultimate Christopher Lee cult film didn't happen though because Lee turned down the role of Dr Loomis in John Carpenter's classic Halloween. The actor apparently later told Carpenter it was one of his biggest regrets. He was of course replaced by the enjoyably eccentric and always reliable Donald Pleasance (who, you have to admit, was great fun as Loomis).
The film I was most familiar with already here is The Man with the Golden Gun but the section devoted to this in the book is entertaining enough. Lee was a cousin to Ian Fleming and used to play golf with him so it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up in a Bond film sooner or later. Lee was joined in The Man with the Golden Gun by one of his Wicker Man co-stars Britt Ekland. I think it's probably fair to say that Britt Ekland enjoyed doing James Bond more than The Wicker Man. "It was not an enjoyable experience at all," said Ekland of The Wicker Man. "We shot it in south-west Scotland on a massive cliff with the sea pounding away below. Filming started in mid or late October and went on for about six weeks. It was very windy and cold but the film was supposed to be set in summer so we were not allowed any overcoats." Ekland was also said to be furious when she found out that her singing scene in The Wicker Man had been dubbed by jazz singer Annie Ross.
You learn in this book, amongst other things, that Lee turned down the part of Dr No in the original 1962 Bond film despite great interest in him doing it. Although Lee's superb performance in The Man with the Golden Gun ranks him quite highly in the pantheon of Bond villain actors the film itself didn't do terribly well and was seen at the time as evidence that the Bond series might have passed its sell by date. The topical plot about the seventies energy crisis dated The Man with the Golden Gun fairly quickly but the presence of Lee and some surreal flourishes have helped to gain it a good few fans over the years.
Christopher Lee made more films than any one person could ever watch and while many have been forgotten a huge number of them were great fun and still enjoyed today. He was in everything from Amicus films to Gremlins 2 to Lord of the Rings and it's fun to dip in and out of some of the highlights of his long and always interesting career. The Cult Films of Christopher Lee is a decent read on the whole with a nice range of stills and only loses a star because of the air of familiarity that unavoidably hangs over it at times.
- Jake



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