Well, my friends, we’ve done it. This is the last Monday before Halloween which means my series about five of the biggest Icons of Horror has come to an end. If you missed it, check out my looks at the top 7 movies by Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Bela Lugosi. But today we’re here to talk about a man who had 278 film and TV credits in his long and lofty career, which sadly ended this past June with his death. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of his generation and, not only a gentleman and by all accounts the most fascinating person you could hope to meet (he definitely did some covert spy stuff during WWII that has yet to be declassified), but also a proponent and lover of genre cinema, especially horror and fantasy. I’m speaking of course about the great Sir Christopher Lee.
It’s very difficult to narrow down his great roles to only seven, which is lucky that I’m only talking about his work in horror movies. What’s that? He appeared in 66 horror films? Oh jeepers. Well, still, I’ve managed to compile my favorite seven horror films in which he has a substantial or memorable role below. Surely your list will differ – it has to! – but here we go with mine. As always, if he played a character more than once (which he did), I only picked one of the movies as a representative, and if he appeared with another actor in the Icons of Horror series, I may have chosen one of his movies for them.
7) Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
The British company Amicus Productions tried to rival Hammer in terms of horror, and while they really couldn’t do it most of the time, they really hit on something with a series of eight portmanteau horror films. The first of which is this one, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which doesn’t take place in a house at all, but on a train. Peter Cushing plays a mysterious man who tells stories about four men in a train compartment. One of them is Christopher Lee, who is haunted by the severed hand of a man (Michael Gough) who was his professional rival. It’s rare to see Lee playing scared, but he does here and does a magnificent job at it.
6) The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)
This is another movie where Lee has a supporting role that was pretty atypical for him. It’s a retelling of the Jekyll/Hyde story, but mixed with The Nutty Professor, because Jekyll is a bearded, fairly boring and milquetoast guy while Hyde is a handsome, charming playboy. Oh, and he’s also a violent murderer. Paul Massie plays both of those roles, but Lee stands out as a rapscallion who befriends Hyde, spends several nights out on the town with him — womanizing and gambling and the like, but then even he realizes something’s really wrong when Hyde bludgeons a man to death. Not the best pal there, Christopher!
5) Horror Express (1973)
This is a great and daffy movie and one of the billion collaborations between Lee and Cushing. Lee plays a professor who finds a frozen prehistoric beast – like a yeti or something – on an expedition in the Chinese Himalayas. So he puts the block of ice on a train bound for Europe and, darn it all, the beast thaws out and begins wreaking havoc on the train. But they can’t stop because of reasons, and Lee still wants to keep the discovery of the century intact and, maybe, alive. Cushing and Telly Savalas play others aboard the train who want to stop the monster. It’s rare to see Lee playing this type of villain, the greedy kind who puts his pride and future fame above the well-being of humans. It’s a strange movie, but undoubtedly fun.
4) Raw Meat (1972)
This one’s fun because Lee doesn’t play a main character or even a large supporting character. He is just a cameo, but a super memorable cameo and one I adore, hence its inclusion here. The movie is about an inbred cannibal who lives in a disused and dilapidated tube station in London, and he begins killing people horribly. On the case is Donald Pleasence as the plucky Cockney police detective. One of the victims is a member of Parliament and an investigation into his life shows that he was super, super pervy and into some disgusting and illegal stuff. Lee comes in as the MI5 operative who tells Pleasence and his partner to move on and that, basically, the government will cover up all of this. The banter between Lee and Pleasence in their one scene is really great, and I’ve included the entirety of it here.
3) Horror of Dracula (1958)
Now this, friends, is a big one. A huge one, even! Though he played the first creature in The Curse of Frankenstein and the titular Egyptian villain in The Mummy, when Christopher Lee was cast as easily the most charming and animally-magnetic version of the vampire count, they really hit on something. He would go on to play Dracula seven times for Hammer and a couple of times for other studios. It’s hard not to choose his debut outing, known in the UK as simply Dracula, as the best of that particular bunch. He doesn’t have many lines, but he is able to instill a great amount of menace when he swoops into the boudoirs of his lady victims, who are both terrified and allured. His final battle against Cushing’s Van Helsing is still one of the best fight scenes Hammer ever did. Great movie, AND only 81 minutes long!
2) The Wicker Man (1973)
Christopher Lee was quoted many times as saying this was his favorite role he ever got to play. In fact, the production was pretty low budget and they couldn’t strictly speaking afford Lee, but he loved the script and insisted he be in it. That’s how highly he regarded it. Of all the movies on the list, I’d say this is easily the best film of the bunch. A very “pure” and puritanical Scottish police constable (Edward Woodward) goes to investigate a missing young girl on a remote island. The people there seem to have no idea what he’s talking about, but keep gearing up for their fall festival, which the officer is aghast to see is a pagan-type affair full of maypoles and animal heads and rampant copulation. Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the wealthy owner of the island who started this community. Though he seems fairly helpful, it eventually becomes clear Summerisle the man and Summerisle the place are very sinister indeed, and the reveal of the endgame is still one of the most shocking in all of horror.
1) The Devil Rides Out (1967)
Even though The Wicker Man is the best film and Lee’s favorite, my favorite is actually this, one of the very few times Christopher Lee ever got to play the good guy. It’s an awesome movie about sorcery and Satanic rituals where a cult tries to conjure Old Scratch himself. Lee is the one who knows how to combat the forces of evil and tries to keep a family safe inside a circle of chalk or salt (it’s been a while) and tries to keep away all of the evil apparitions that are sent to entice them out of the circle, including a giant tarantula. The film was based on a Dennis Wheatley novel and written for the screen by the great Richard Matheson (his only script for Hammer), and directed by the go-to Terence Fisher. Christopher Lee pushed very hard for this film to be made as he was a huge fan of Wheatley’s dark fantasy novels, and he called it his favorite of the Hammer films he made, which is high praise coming from someone who made a metric butt-ton of them. As great as Lee is as a villain in all of these movies, I love seeing him get to don the metaphorical white hat.
And there we have it! These are my seven favorite horror films starring Christopher Lee. Let me know yours in the comments below! And thanks for reading this column, it’s been a lot of fun for me to do. Perhaps next year I’ll do it again with different people. Leave suggestions for other Icons of Horror here or on Twitter.
Image: Warner Bros/Hammer Horror
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!