Horrormeister: Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Sir Christopher Lee died last Sunday aged 93. 

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“When you toy with the dark side of the soul, imagination comes into the forefront. You can enjoy it more and communicate that joy to the audience. And I really do love what I do” – Christopher Lee.

The actor best known for creating the definitive Count Dracula in cinema passed away on Sunday. He was 93. A monolithic figure – at 6 ft 5 in – with a deep yet majestic voice and a killer scowl, Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was made to play villains of the highest order.

After the end of the Second World War, a diplomatic career seemed to be in order, but it wasn’t to be; instead, he turned to acting. In a career spanning 70 years, he put in a formidable 250 roles. 

So it is rather perplexing to learn that he made an uninspiring debut in the Gothic romance: Corridor of Mirrors (1947) followed by a decade of minor roles…

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“Christopher is an extraordinarily clever man, who possesses enormous talents… A dear, charming man with a great sense of humour…” – Peter Cushing.

It turned out to be Hammer Studios which gave him his big break. In The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) he played the mute, shambling creation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein who was played malevolently by Peter Cushing. It would be the third time that the two thesps would share the screen.

Across 35 years, Lee and Cushing appeared in 22 phenomenal movies together, mostly horror, although both icons preferred their unbeatable portfolio to be described as macabre. Not surprisingly, they forged a strong and enduring friendship.

While Lee had been unhappy with the limited possibilities to express his talents as Frankenstein’s Monster, he needn’t have worried for too long. Their next movie together the following year turned out to be one of the top British horror classics of all time: Dracula (1958).

They also worked on Amicus (another British horror movie studio) productions together, of which Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) (see above) was particularly good. 

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“I have always admired his talents. He has done some magnificent work in the gothic genre. His Dracula has never been surpassed – and I doubt if it ever will be. He is a great raconteur… He is also a very fine singer… He is what he is, and that is what makes him Christopher Lee” – Michael Carreras. 

 

In 20 years with Hammer Studios, Lee created a fiendish gallery of infamous characters, ranging from the Mummy, Rasputin and Fu Manchu. 

One of the most engrossing – not to mention exciting – films in Lee’s substantial macabre repertoire was The Devil Rides Out (1968), in which he played the Duc de Richleau, who must call on his esoteric knowledge of the occult to prevent the son of an old friend from joining a satanic cult. This British horror classic stands as one of his finest performances as he portrayed – in a welcome change – one of the good guys.

He was the only actor to have played both Sherlock Holmes and his wiser brother Mycroft (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1971), as well as Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In later years, he would cite Lord Summerisle, the chieftain of a Pagan community on an isolated Hebridean island in the classic: The Wicker Man (1973) as his personal favourite performance.

His turn as the triple-nippled assassin-for-hire: Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) was inspired casting – despite the fact that he was related to 007 creator Ian Fleming (who had considered Lee to originally play Bond!) – as he brought a sophisticated touch to a franchise that had begun to lose its way somewhat. 

We could be here all night trying to select one, or a few, clips best representing what Lee could do. No doubt you have uploaded your own exceptional Hammer scenes, but here, instead, this subtle yet menacing scene – one of my personal faves – perfectly demonstrates one of the best villains. Ever. 

 

“It’s terribly sad when you lose an old friend, and Christopher Lee was one of my oldest. We first met in 1948” – Sir Roger Moore. 

In recent years, Lee’s career went through a stunning renaissance. First, he was cast as the duplicitous wizard of Isengard: Saruman in The Lord of The Rings. The only member of the cast to have met JRR Tolkien, he was tipped by the author to play Gandalf! Originally to have appeared in all instalments of the trilogy, he was astonished to discover that all his scenes had been cut from the concluding epic: The Return of the King.

Bizarrely, he was cast as Count Dooku, a Sith Lord in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, reprising the role for Episode III only to meet an early demise.

In October 2009, Lee was knighted “for his services to drama and charity.” “I don’t know if any other actor of my age has received one…” he said, standing outside Buckingham Palace. “Perhaps they thought it best to give it to me before it’s too late.”

 

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Christopher Frank Carandini Lee

27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015.

What The Flux?: Brad’s Guide to the Future

Happy New Year! Hope you all have a Good One! Not too Heavy!

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“There’s that word again: ‘heavy.’ Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?” – Dr Emmett L. Brown.   

1984 and 2001 are just two examples of years forever synonymous with visions of the future. As an integral part of SF, visual conceptions of future times are practically inevitable. What better way to start this new blogging year than seeing what lies ahead? Here are some of the futures we can look forward to… 

Naturally, we begin with:

2015: in the “Present Time” – Oct 21 to be exact. Marty McFly will travel from 1985 to sort his kids out. Apparently this year, we can get Home Energy Reactors, Jaws 17, self-drying jackets, hoverboards and flying cars. The latter will also play a major factor come:

November 2019: In permanently-dark Los Angeles, a group of Nexus 6 Replicants have to be hunted down by everyone’s fave Corellian smuggler. 

2022: Overpopulation and the inevitable food shortages mean that the deceased are reprocessed into green Ryvita. Order will be MAINTAINED by a gun-toting (fully-clad) Charlton Heston. 

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“You see how clever this part is? How it doesn’t require a shred of proof? Most paranoid delusions are intricate, but this is brilliant!” – Dr. Peter Silberman. 

2029: In the War of the Machines, skull-crusher tanks and heavily-armed cyborgs try to vanquish the last vestiges of the human race. A Terminator – inexplicably programmed to speak with an Austrian accent – is sent back to 1984 to terminate the resistance leader’s mother. And hey, Los Angeles is still dark (that’s permanance for you!)

2054: An officer at the Precrimes unit of Minority Report, as described by Philip K. Dick, is accused of a future murder. This has to be a monumental bureaucratic cock-up because that officer is none other than Tom Cruise! 

2077: Would u Adam-an’-Eve it? Tom frickin’ Cruise again! Only this time, the Cruiser is Jack Reacher Harper: one of the few remaining drone repairmen assigned to Earth. The movie’s called Oblivion; go figure…

2084: Mars has become colonised in Total Recall, yet-another Philip K. Dick scenario: “We can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Memory implants, Sharon Stone and an Austrian accent. Is there life on Mars? Well, there’s certainly no green Ryvita…

2087: The crew of the Nostromo have to respond to a distress signal from Planet LV426, but unleash a nasty, acid-for-blood Alien. 

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“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen!” – Private Hudson. 

2144: Officer Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, is discovered (after floating in space for 57 years). She becomes “Adviser” to a group of gung-ho Space Marines who get wiped out by a nest of Aliens. At least Mr. Jones (the cat) survived, so that’s nice. Or it could be:

2176: There is an ongoing debate as to precisely when these two films are set. In the Special Edition, a photo of Ripley’s daughter has a date: 2174 (two years previously), which implies that Alien would have to be set in 2119… right? But heck, how can you even think about the time when you have to contend with rampant chest-bursters and face-huggers?!… And it’s another SEVENTEEN DAYS until any rescue-ship arrives?! Game over, man! Game over!   

2150: The Dalek Invasion of Earth ensues. Luckily, Peter Cushing (because William Hartnell was not deemed acceptable to a US audience) and Bernard Cribbins save the Doctor’s favourite planet from the notorious pepper-pots. 

2154: The super-rich live on a space station, while the rest lead a monotonous existence on Earth munching through green Ryvita. Except for Matt Damon who – desperate to cure his radiation sickness – goes in search of Ben Affleck Elysium. 

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Luna Schlosser: “What’s it feel like to be dead for 200 years?”                                                                  

Miles Monroe: “Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills.” 

2173: Woody Allen awakes from a 200-year old cryostasis to find that he is Flash Gordon; smoking and deep fat come highly recommended; and his rent is 10,000 months overdue. He could have made a fortune selling green Ryvita in his health food store…

March 22, 2233: James Tiberius Kirk is born, which means that the USS Enterprise mission to boldly go and drag down new life and screw up new civilizations transpired between:

2263-68: When the “original” Star Trek takes place.

2274: Boys get to wear lycra body-suits and the girls don chiffon nighties, holding green Ryvita parties in a 70s City-state, as featured in Logan’s Run, but death is compulsory as soon as they turn 30, hence the Run

2293: Last vestiges of humanity are concentrated around green Ryvita-processing-plant apparently in rural Ireland, overseen by huge flying head known as Zardoz. Embarrassing undies modelled by: Sean Connery…?! (The future looks bleak!)

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“Beedeebeedeebeedee” – Twiki. 

2491: Due to a “freak mishap,” subjected to “cosmic forces beyond all comprehension”, Captain Buck Rogers awakes from 500-year deep-freeze to find that he is Flash Gordon and Earth’s population has been reduced to wearing brightly-coloured spandex.  

3973: The human race has reverted to primitive mute level, while snazzily-dressed (no spandex, thank The Lawgiver!) talking apes have taken over. Curiously enough, there are no Austrian accents… Order will be SCREWED UP by a gun-toting (semi-clad) Charlton Heston. 

10,191: On the distant planet of Dune, Kyle MacLachlan and the Fremen defeat the Emperor of  the Universe with the aid of an incoherent script. And lots of giant worms. Everyone – speaking without talking; travelling without moving – is popping Spice. Pure, unrefined Spice sure beats green Ryvita any day, man… Embarrassing undies modelled by: Sting. (The future looks bleaker!)

802,701: The Earth is a shambles, despite having no guns, no spandex, certainly no sign of any talking apes. No Charlton Heston for that matter. Not only has the Ryvita run out, there is no Spice to be had either! Times don’t get tougher than this. Embarrassing undies modelled by: …what looks like a grotesque bunch of subterranean trolls. (Bleaker than bleakest.) Rod Taylor is left wondering why he travelled so far forward in his Time Machine…

If none of this has made you develop a taste for History instead, nothing will! 

Cheers!

Peter Cushing: “The Gentle Man of Horror”

Actor. Gentleman. Scientist. Vampire Hunter. Time Lord. Detective. Imperial Badass.

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“The most professional actor I have ever worked with. He’s highly regarded all over the world as a brilliant actor, and deservedly so. If they knew what we got up to on the set in every film we’ve made… the imitations that I used to do, the dances that he used to do… ” – Christopher Lee.  

There is one reason why horror movies no longer appeal to me. They are certainly a barren and soulless place without the late great Peter Cushing (1913-1994). Best remembered for producing the definitive versions of Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing for Hammer horror films, he was an actor of exceptional range and skill.

Before he made his indelible mark on the horror genre, he had appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and had leading roles in a string of TV adaptations including Pride and Prejudice, The Winslow Boy, and most notably in the live dramatisation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the latter production which inspired the producer Michael Carreras to invite him to to star in the film destined to change his life forever…

In 1957, he appeared in Curse of Frankenstein, playing the notorious scientist totally different to the pained and remorseful character envisaged by Mary Shelley. Cushing’s Baron Frank was a cruel and cunning piece of work, who is prepared to push a visiting professor to his death just to get a head. The monster was played by fellow horror maestro: Christopher Lee. It not only marked the establishment of a formidable partnership, but a lifelong friendship.

Its stupendous success led to another interpretation of an infamous gothic character the following year. Dracula (1958) certainly gave the opportunity for Lee to create a career-defining performance, but in Van Helsing, Cushing was calm and collected, sensitive yet determined, and ultimately presented an admirable adversary. It’s amazing to consider now how energetic both roles were: the gripping climax in which Van Helsing runs the length of a banqueting table, tears down the curtains and lunges at a sunstruck Dracula with two silver candlesticks pressed together to form a crucifix is said to have deen devised by Cushing himself!

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“When he did Sherlock Holmes, he went to a very famous teacher of the violin so that he knew how to hold it… When he was making The Mummy, he went to the hospital and and sat in with operations. He was very meticulous…” – Joyce Broughton (his secretary).

Peter Cushing could adapt to any role. In 1959, he played Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Directed by Terence Fisher, many Holmes afficianados consider Cushing’s detective as the definitive article.

In 1965, the success of BBC’s Doctor Who led perhaps inevitably to the big screen. In order to maximise transatlantic appeal, Cushing was cast in place of William Hartnell, playing the Time Lord as an endearing grandfatherly figure in Dr Who and the Daleks. Its phenomenal success led to a sequel: Daleks’ Invasion of Earth: 2150 AD. (1966).

Other distinctive roles included: The Mummy (1959), and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1965). In an attempt to emulate hammer’s success, Amicus Productions joined the horror bandwagon, involving Cushing’s invaluable services. Some of the most notable films included: Dr Terror’s House 0f Horrors (1964) in which he dealt tarot cards foretelling the fate of passengers on a train; and The Creeping Flesh (1972) whereby a horrific skeleton from the jungles of Borneo “will be resurrected when the gods shall weep.”

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“The boots they gave me [to wear as Grand Moff Tarkin] were far too small. I said to George: ‘…whenever possible, could you please shoot me from the waist up?’ He very kindly agreed… I was really wearing carpet slippers. That is why Moff Tarkin was so hostile… his feet were killing him” – Peter Cushing.

The passing of his beloved wife Helen in 1971 devastated him. In subsequent years, he made movies of a distinctly lesser quality; this was a concerted attempt to keep his mind occupied as he adjusted awkwardly to a crushing existence of loneliness.  

In one of his more entertaining roles, he appeared as a delightfully daffy professer in At The Earth’s Core (1976), alongside trusty fantasy stalwarts: Doug McClure (“a very dear chap”) and Caroline Munro (“so sweet”). Absolutely hilarious, he was gifted with such dialogue as: “A rhamphorynchus! In this day in age! How extraordinary!”

Maybe George Lucas was a Hammer fan? This would help explain Cushing’s appearance in the original Star Wars (1977) as Grand Moff Tarkin: a brief, yet deliciously malevolent turn. No other actor could lace the phrase: “You may fire when ready” with such bloodcurdling doom!

Nevertheless, in real life, Peter Cushing was a kind and gentle fellow, always approachable, and never said a harsh word about anyone. Although honoured with an OBE in 1989, Peter Cushing never won any movie accolades; yet surely he has topped most horrorfans’ and movie-goers’ polls and – as new generations discover the various gems of his amazing career – he will continue to do so.

Perhaps the last words should be left to the maestro himself:

“The tremendous affection that people shower upon me, and the interest they take in my work, touches me so deeply…

“To think that young people are still interested enough in me to write about me and see my pictures is pretty marvellous!”

 

 

Dracula Unwanted: NO Vlad For Brad!

Vampires are make-believe, just like elves and gremlins and eskimoes.

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“It is time for our culture to abandon Dracula and pass beyond him” – Robin Wood.

With Halloween just a week away, it seemed appropriate to select a topic on fear and dread and all things undead. What better subject than vampires to concentrate on? 

Hey, not so fast!

Unfortunately, any movie featuring fangs, long capes, dodgy Eastern European accents or Robert Pattinson has become strictly off-limits. It has come to the pathetic point that any mention of vampires invokes connotations of mediocrity and monotony, while the very mention of the name: Dracula is likely to send me into fits of boundless irritation.

So, here we go again: the release of Dracula Untold has – not surprisingly – been met with a critical mauling, and less-than-encouraging cinema attendances. At least it concentrates on the origin story of Vlad the Impaler. Let’s face it: this is the only direction with which Stoker’s tired and moribund story could still be tolerated by an equally tired and indifferent cinema-going public.

In the publicity material, Vlad’s suit of armour looks mightily impressive, but then – sign of the times – conceptual art tends to look more impressive than the completed movie these days. Nonetheless, the film still sucks (ha!). You could publish a book just collecting all the reviewers’ vitriol and sarcasm brimming over at rottentomatoes.com  

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“Our very first encounter began with me storming into [Peter Cushing’s] dressing room and announcing in petulant tones: ‘I haven’t got any lines!” …and he said drily: You’re lucky. I’ve read the script'” – Christopher Lee.

Had to rush home the other night to watch the 1958 Dracula on TV – it still proves to be a rare absolute joy; it deserves to be regarded as the greatest vampire movie ever – the pinnacle to which lesser bloodsucking bios strive but always seem to fail spectacularly.

Christopher Lee produced a fabulous (not to mention frenetic) performance to become the definitive Prince of Darkness. Yet it is Peter Cushing as his nemesis: Van Helsing who really enhanced the material, helping to turn it into a compelling drama. It could be argued that without these two icons – at the height of their powers – it seems unfeasible that Hammer Studios could have flourished for as long and successfully as it did. 

Doesn’t matter that Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968) warned that “you can’t keep a good man down,” poor conceptions of Transylvania’s most notorious individual failed to impress in later Hammer vehicles. Even Lee himself was becoming seriously dischuffed about having fewer consequential things to do as the sequels became more silly and superfluous… 

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“Dracula remains dead and well (or dead and loving it); other monsters merely endure. After Bram Stoker’s Dracula, their revival became obligatory” – Kim Newman.

It seems somewhat inevitable that this struggling post would twitch and stagger to the ubiquitous subject of vampires. For a brief period during the 80s we could enjoy an original and enjoyable revival of the fanged ones, with Fright Night (1985 – yay, Roddy!), cult classic Near Dark (1987) and the real “children of the night” The Lost Boys (1987).

Yet somehow, as Francis Ford Coppola’s bold and lavish “faithful” adaptation of the the novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) failed to attract my interest. For all its grandeur, it made for turgid viewing. The only true scare to be gleaned from this whole wasted effort was being subjected to Keanu (“severe drop in cinema attendances”) Reeves as Jonathon Harker. Oh, The horror, the horror!

Since then, what undead undoings have we been subjected to? Alas, more than a few unfortunate instances entailing the regrettable loss of 90-120 minutes have befallen me, and – guess what! – movies involving vampires were always to blame…  

By far the worst offender came in that feckless dire heap known as Van Helsing (2004), wherein Hugh Jackman showed that he just could not step into the substantial and hallowed shoes of the late, great Peter Cushing. When Kate Beckinsale co-stars in figure-hugging black, you realise how desperate the film-makers really are! Naturally, this led to more unbearable tosh in the wretched form of Underworld and its unwanted stream of vacuous sequelsand now the reboot has just been announced!…? 

And – ye gods! you lucky mortals! – you’ve been spared my rant against Twilight!

No matter how many silver crucifixes you stow away, or how much garlic you secrete about your person, there will always seem to be an unending supply of intolerable vampire movies ready to give horror movies a bad name.  

(Must sign off here before typing that dodgy remark about them being a pain in the neck…)