Christopher Lee was the first person that gave fear a face.
For me, anyway. For others it was Lon Chaney. Or Robert Englund.
In the days before streaming Netflix or cable-on-demand, horror was a scheduled event. If you weren’t home to see it, you missed it. As a kid, I tried very hard not to miss it. “Creature Double Feature,” on Saturday afternoons, was second only to Mass in terms of mandatory weekend activity in my family. My mother actually encouraged this. I’ve often speculated that she had kids simply to have the opportunity to view monsters afresh through their eyes.
The problem there was that her middle child – me – had been born amped up on her own neurological spook juice. A very gossamer barrier divided reality from imagination. A framed print depicting jolly monks serving wine, which hung in our dining room, frightened me for years. I screamed in terror at sand. And yet I would park my little corduroyed ass in front of that television on Saturday afternoon, even though I knew that sleep would be nigh on impossible that night, and my mother obliged me to go on with this ordeal. To refuse me my place with my siblings (and friends whose parents weren’t quite so gung-ho about daytime gore) would be to invite tantrums on a Godzillian scale, so I’m sure that had something to do with it, but perhaps she was also giving me a way to work through my various and sundry anxieties. Maybe.
The first film ghoul I remember being scared of was Christopher Lee as Dracula. I was about 6 years old. The first half of the “Creature Double Feature” that Saturday was Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Hooooo, boy. Nightmares for MONTHS.
His bloodshot eyes and pointy incisors so terrified me that I began sleeping with my pillow bunched up around my neck by way of “protection.” I reckoned that his having to work his way around the pillow to get at my neck would create sufficient movement as to wake me in time to…fight him off, I guess. I’m not sure how I was going to do that. I just hoped he’d see the explosion of pillow on either side of my neck and become discouraged enough to seek sustenance elsewhere.
And yet I grasped, even at that tender age, that there was something quite dashing about him. He was restrained and elegant when he wasn’t hissing and draining well-coiffed damsels of their blood. I was certainly too young to really study the concept of duality among film monsters, but I suppose that was my first introduction to this idea that people were not always as they seemed.
As I grew older and developed enough competing emotions to counteract my fear, I was able to appreciate Lee’s spin on the character. He became, in essence, My Favorite Vampire. Lee’s Dracula is refined, tastefully attired; certainly that can also be argued of Lugosi’s portrayal, but Christopher Lee really cultivated the image of Dracula as suave sociopath. There’s a savage eroticism to him.
As a horror fan, I’m not particularly interested in conflicted vampires. It should go without saying that I’m not Team Edward by any stretch of the imagination. “Oooo, I wonder what made him such a Baddy McBadguy?” is less engaging a plot device as “Holy shit – this guy’s a remorseless demon from below Hell!” When I’m simply looking for a good scare. I don’t tend to want to delve too deeply into the hows and whys of abnormal psychology (that’s what true crime books are for). More contemporary equivalents to Lee’s interpretation would be Tom Cruise as Lestat (Interview With The Vampire), or Danny Huston as Marlow (30 Days Of Night). It’s an evil that you know must be destroyed, but you find yourself cheering for it, anyway, because it’s just so enjoyable to watch.
Of course I realize that Lee’s body of work is so much more than just this one role. The thing that struck me as news of his death made the rounds of social media was what he meant to my younger friends and coworkers. Lee was Count Dooku, he was Saruman the White. To older friends he was Scaramanga, he was Lord Summerisle. Friends who’d never seen him in fangs and a cape were as bummed as I was, for reasons not dissimilar to my own. He was the face of villainy. In watching him, we study baseness and depravity without having to be elbow-deep in it ourselves. And he made it fun.
I’d love to hear from you about YOUR favorite Christopher Lee villain, or your favorite vampire.