The Second Most Famous Dracula
No other actor has played the part of Count Dracula in so many films. As a consequence, none other has gazed into so many initially hesitant sets of eyes belonging to beautiful women–Caroline Munro, Barbara Hershey, Linda Hayden, Veronica Carlson to name just a few. So many plunging necklines! So many throats to ravish!
Yet–curiously–so few lines to speak. In his autobiography Sir Christopher Lee tells of an exchange between himself and Peter Cushing when filming Hammer’s first Frankenstein feature. Lee, playing the creature, whined a little about having no lines. “You’re lucky,” said Cushing, “I’ve read the script.” Therein perhaps lies the paradox of Lee and his relationship to the role which made him famous, but which did not in the end define him. To many a movie-goer Lee is just as likely to be recalled as the corrupted Wizard Saruman in “Lord of the Rings” or the Sith Lord Dooku from the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Other memorable roles include Lord Summerisle in the original “Wicker Man” and a marvelous tour de force in the biopic “Jinnah” about the founder of Pakistan (his favorite performance, and one can see why–watching that film makes one realize how criminally under-used Sir Christopher has been his entire career, as we see him play a patriotic leader as well as a melancholy lover, a morally upright man who in the end actually weeps for all the good he couldn’t find a way to do).
His many forays into cinematic Draculas were without exception rather low-budget affairs. Other Transylvanian Counts travel far, transform into bats or wolves, etc. But starting with “Horror of Dracula” (1958) Hammer’s Dracula with Lee in the role had limited powers and didn’t journey far afield, usually no more than horse-ride’s journey from his castle. When one looks at Jess Franco’s abortive “Conde Dracula” (1970) with its even cheaper effects one can forgive this. Better to do what you can as well as possible than overreach and fail. Yet one thing every performance of the famous vampire by Christopher Lee had was power. He might speak only three sentences in a ninety minute flick, but each word came across as full of inhuman force. Lee’s Dracula didn’t seem to need a voice, and sometimes barely needed to move. Those eyes would capture you, and like a bird before a cobra, he had you at his mercy. He threatened from stillness, no small feat.
Likewise he seduced from stillness. For better than a generation Lee turned Dracula into a sex symbol again, after the figure having become the stuff of jokes a la Grandpa Munster (technically, Grandpa made his appearance after Lee’s Dracula, but the trope of seeing the Count as a butt for jokes predated that specific American sitcom). His films created a new image of the vampire’s victim–an attractive woman who cannot take her eyes off this tall, dark, handsome stranger–and who opens her nightgown to give unto him her throat to pierce. It came across as a kind of sexual sacrament.
Lee enjoyed many advantages as Dracula, most of whom served him well in the rest of his acting career. He himself complains (good-naturedly for the most part) about his great height but it certainly helped create an air of authority. His deep and expressive voice was another, which later gave him a lot of opportunities for voice work. Hammer Studios took a new direction with vampire films, showing fangs and blood as well as lacing their films with sexuality. Lee proved an excellent choice for all that, not least because he seemed like such a dangerous aristocrat. In fact, that is precisely what he was and is. His mother was a Contessa with roots going back to the Holy Roman Empire of Barbarossa. More, during WW2 he served in the Special Operations Executive (in other words, something of a secret agent–he hinted during the filming of “Lord of the Rings” that he had to kill people from stealth).
Unlike the most famous Dracula, Lee displays great gifts with languages. His English is public-school perfect, as well, so in the same style of many English actors of his generation–Peter O’Toole, Michael Gough, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness–he ended up performing in a variety of different roles. Somewhat curiously, he is so far the only actor to have portrayed Fu Manchu, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft on film. Other parts included Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, Rochefort in “The Three Musketeers” and its sequel (Lee is an excellent fencer), the title character in the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun”, plus Willy Wonka’s father in the Tim Burton remake of Roald Dahl’s classic (although uncredited, his was the voice of the Jabberwocky in Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”). To be sure, plenty of other roles were less than memorable, but with over 250 movies under his belt isn’t that to be expected? More to the point, he remained a working actor. He remains one as of this writing, no small feat for a man pushing ninety!
Still, for the fan of vampire films Lee remains an icon as well as a source of frustration. If only! If only he’d gotten a chance to do Dracula in a production as lavish (and relatively faithful) as the BBC version in 1979 or Francis Ford Coppola’s in 1992. Bela Lugosi seemed born to play Dracula, but Lee comes across as a very fine actor who simply was ideal for the part. We never got to see the full-on performance he could have given to Bram Stoker’s Count. Glimpses only, tantalizing ones. Looking at the rest of his work, one feels confirmed that given a chance his Dracula would have earned the adjective “awesome” instead of simply “compelling.”
Might have beens. Life contains many. The good new remains that his performances as the dark god of Transylvania remain viewable and many, just like his other fine performances (with more still to come).