If your vision of Dracula is the cape-wielding, Sesame Street-inspiring theatrics of Bela Lugosi, or the crimson-robed melodrama of Gary Oldman, Christopher Lee’s first appearance in the role can seem almost bizarrely simplistic. In 1958’s Horror of Dracula, he first appears — to the sound of a gong, no less — silhouetted atop a staircase. He descends effortlessly, never looking at his quick feet, gliding like a bat in a nosedive, then immediately offers a greeting, his calm face right in front of the camera. There are no grand pronouncements about Children of the Night or the sweet music they make, no growling memories of the great Order of the Dragon. He’s simply a polite, if distant, host, carrying his guest’s luggage and apologizing for not greeting him earlier.
And yet, there’s an intensity to the moment, something Lee would ultimately bring to even the most thankless of the horror roles he played. It’s in his physicality, his deep, self-assured voice, and eyes that are just as piercing when they’re wide and bloodshot as when they’re behind a mummy’s wrappings. By the time the scene is over, you know: Christopher Lee didn’t have to play Dracula. He was Dracula.
Told in his early years that, at 6’5”, he was “too tall” to be an actor, Lee’s height ultimately helped win him his breakout role as The Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein, the first of many Hammer Films productions inspired by the Universal horror classics of the ’30s and ’40s, and his first collaboration with Peter Cushing, who would become a lifelong friend. Because Universal was fiercely protective of its monster makeup, Lee’s Creature got an entirely different, more gruesome look, leaving him with the unenviable task of playing an iconic role without an already iconic look. He pulled it off. Few movie monsters have ever looked more pitiful, and though the lurid, Technicolor blood-soaked tone so associated with Hammer Horror might be what draws you in, Lee’s tragic eyes are what make The Creature memorable.
In 1959, Lee leant his imposing frame to the title role in The Mummy, and spent much of the film as a wordless, shambling creature covered in wrappings (and often mud). The performance is a testament to his workmanship. He was asked to climb through windows and trudge through bogs in costume, and got a dislocated shoulder for his trouble (he vowed never to make a sequel), but he soldiered on, delivering menace with his body and sensitivity with his eyes.
A famously prolific actor, Lee’s exhaustive filmography includes a broad spectrum of horror roles, but the role that cemented him as a genre icon is inarguably Dracula. He played the Count seven times for Hammer from 1958 to 1973, in films ranging in quality from classic to Why the hell am I watching this?, but even when given almost nothing to do onscreen, even when speaking no lines in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (he claims the lines were so bad he refused to say them), Lee never wavers in his commitment to the character. It didn’t matter if the film was terrible, or that he didn’t want to be there. When Dracula was onscreen, Dracula owned the movie.
The Christopher Lee Dracula is an intoxicating combination of sensual and monstrous. He’s Action Dracula, bounding after victims and enemies, replacing Lugosi’s glare from behind a cape with a vicious, fang-bearing hiss, and literally wrestling for his life with Cushing’s Van Helsing. In those moments, he’s every bit the monster, a creature of animal instinct and physical dominance. When a fetching female victim appears, though, the animalism becomes magnetic sexuality, which Lee often emphasized with a brush of his lips against hers just before sinking his fangs in. Though Lee’s said he never intended to portray Dracula sexually, that we see him that way is inescapable, particularly when, in Horror of Dracula, he sets out to claim his new bride from among the loved ones of those who killed his last female companion. There’s an element of dark sexual revenge lingering in many of his Dracula films, and though he might simply have been aiming for sheer, asexual conquest in his performance, that part of the character helps make him the definitive movie Dracula.
It took eight years for Hammer to get Lee to make a Horror of Dracula sequel. They then managed to drag him back for five more sequels through what he termed “emotional blackmail,” by reminding him that distributors were only interested if he played Dracula, and that he’d be putting crew members out of work if he didn’t return. Reluctant though he was to make those films, he still took on plenty of other horror roles that allowed him to be much more than a monster. In The Devil Rides Out (1968) — one of Hammer’s best horror films — he was a stern but benevolent, and sometimes terrified, nobleman and occult expert battling a group of Satanists. In Horror Express (1973), he re-teamed with Peter Cushing to fight an ancient creature onboard a train. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), he played the heroic, haunted Sir Henry. He mastered other villainous characters, playing the title role in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966), and criminal mastermind Fu Manchu in five films from 1965 to 1969. Then, in perhaps his crowning horror achievement, he played Lord Summerisle in the genre-bending cult classic The Wicker Man, a film he’s called the favorite of his entire career.
Lee eventually overcame horror typecasting, and in recent interviews he’s called those films part of an era of his life that he no longer finds relevant. He went on to become a Bond villain, play the founder of Pakistan, host a legendary Saturday Night Live episode, work with Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, and George Lucas, and live out a lifelong dream by appearing in The Lord of the Rings, as Saruman. (He also recorded two metal albums about Charlemagne, because no one tells Christopher Lee what to do.)
Looking at his many accomplishments over a 200-plus film, nearly 70-year acting career, it’s easy to see how Lee could’ve been a film legend even if he’d never played Dracula. Horror’s what he had to work with, though, and even if he was sometimes reluctant to dive back in, he always brought intensity, authority, and pure determination to every role. He might not like being called a horror legend anymore, but his work means we’ll never stop honoring him as one.
Matthew Jackson is a freelance pop culture writer/nerd-for-hire and Contributing Editor at Blastr.com. Find him on Twitter at @awalrusdarkly.