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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lee’

Two hundred years ago this month, at the age of just twenty, Mary Shelley published one a novel that still resonates in the cinema of today.  At last count, there are around 120 film and television adoptions of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 

The origin of the novel came eighteen months earlier when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was in  Switzerland with her lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley visiting Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.  Known as the “Year Without a Summer”, 1816 was particularly cold and wet due to the so called volcanic winter following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.  Having read all the ghost stories the villa’s library had to offer the group decided to write their own.  History suggests Mary’s was the best.   Originally not a commercial success, the novel found early success on stage, then in the twentieth century on film.  Often referred to as the original adaptation, James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931), was not the first. The first film adaptation, Frankenstein (1910) came from Edison Studios in the silent era and was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley  This was followed by Life Without Soul (1921), written by Jesse J. Goldburg, and directed by Joseph W. Smiley.  There was also the Italian version, the Italian Il Mostro di Frankenstein (“The Monster of Frankenstein”), no known prints of this film remain. 320px-Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_page

I am not sure when I first saw a Frankenstein movie, but have always been aware of Frankenstein or to be more precise, his monster.  But to many people, Frankenstein is the monster not the monsters creator, who is actually called Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein.  An easy mistake to make as the creator is the real monster, but I am getting ahead of myself.  The monster, or at least the Boris Karloff, Universal version of him is probably the most recognisable and iconic character in movie history.  When did I first see him?  Probably a clip on TV.  The first, I really remember is one of two things: cardboard Halloween masks given out by the ice-cream man, or the Frankenstein’s monster alike, Herman Munster who seemed to always be on TV in the 80’s. Herman Munster

Then at the age of around ten or eleven I saw Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) (shown in a double bill on channel 4 with  Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966). I soon watched many more Hammer movies including their first Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) with Christopher Lee as the monster.  These are probably the best of the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and significant in the series.  Made off the back the Universal Monster Movies that were experiencing a renaissance on TV on both sides of the Atlantic, the 1957 film was the first significant adaptation in years.  Without the use iconic look, the rights to which were owned by Universal Hammer had to be creative.  Taking the board strokes the source material but telling its own story, with a subtext of a fear of science, this is after all a film made a decade after WWII and in the early days of the cold war. Directed with style by Terence Fisher and perfectly performed by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Like Shelley’s novel, the movie was poorly received by critics but loved by audiences proving to be commercial success and a springboard to the Hammer movies of the next decade and a half. frankenstein-created-woman1

A few years later I saw the aforementioned James Whale, Universal movies.  Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Colin Clive as Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff as the monster.  One of the few films where the sequel is better than the original, but like The Godfather, or Mad Max, it doesn’t matter, as they are both brilliant.  Great art often comes from the obscure places.  Universal were haemorrhaging money.  Dracula, essentially a filmed play starring Bela Lugosi, made a lot of money so they decided to fast-track further horror/monster movies.  They hired James Whale, two pictures into a five movie contract (His previous credits were a couple of world war one movies, one of which starred future Henry (changed from Victor) Frankenstein, Colin Clive.  He was also one of the unaccredited directors on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels). Whale elevates the movie above Dracula’s stage origin by both expanding the canvas and through cinematic flair.  Influenced by German Expressionism, the film set a template for future horror.  It also helps that both Whale and Karloff, individually and collectively understood that the monster wasn’t really the monster of the story. frankenstein

Then I read Mary Shelley’s original novel and became obsessed with Frankenstein and its many adaptations.  They include Young Frankenstein (1974).  Not to be misunderstood, Young Frankenstein (1974) is actually among the best Frankenstein movies.  Written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder; Directed by Brooks and starring Wilder, it both tells Shelley’s story, understands the themes, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny.  Utilising original props and set dressing from the 1931 movie, it also looks like a Frankenstein movie. young frankenstein

The total opposite to the Hammer version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) received good reviews but was less popular with audiences; Audiences who had grown up with various film versions but were less familiar with the original novel, audiences who expected the monster to be a monster.  Kenneth Branagh directs with swagger and style and is ok in the lead but Robert De Niro wasn’t the best choice of monster.  It is a film well worth revisiting. mary shelley's frankenstein

The adaptations are still coming thick and fast, here are a few from the current decade:

  • 2011: The BBC broadcast a live production from Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds; billed as Frankenstein’s Wedding.
  • 2011: The National Theatre produced a version by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle. Actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated the roles of Frankenstein and the monster.  The play was broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.
  • 2014: Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster were both recurring characters in the (excelled) TV horror series Penny Dreadful.
  • 2014: I, Frankenstein: Frankenstein’s monster joins an age old battle between and Gargoyles.  A truly terrible film.
  • 2015: Frankenstein: a modern-day adaptation told from the monster’s point of view.
  • 2015: Victor Frankenstein:  Victorian set drama told from Igor’s perspective.
  • 2016: Frankenstein: A full length ballet performed by The Royal Ballet and simulcasts worldwide.
  • 2019: Bride of Frankenstein: The second film in the “Dark Universe” with Javier Bardem as the monster was due out next year, but is currently in turnaround.

If you are interested in Frankenstein, but don’t know where to start, I would recommend either the 1931 movie or Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Don’t wait for the next adaptation, it is unlikely to live up to either of these.  And finally for those who are wondering, the title of the article comes from a line that appeared in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and not a line spoken by Russell Crowe in the trailer for The Mummy (2017). bride of frankenstein 1935

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165 years at 15 Marino Crescent in Clontarf, a coastal suburb on the north side of Dublin, Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley gave birth to the third of her seven children. You have probably never heard of her of her six other children, but you may now the third, Abraham “Bram” Stoker. In 1897 at the age of fifty, he published his fifth and most famous novel Dracula. Over 200 actors have played Dracula in around 300 films and TV episodes. My favourite of these has always been Christopher Lee. The English Knight played the Transylvanian Count numerous times mainly in Hammer movies. Is it because he is the best or just the first actor I saw play the part, probably a bit of both! When I was about ten years old I was introduced to Christopher Lee, I had no idea who he was. A few months later Channel 4 started showing a series of old Hammer Horror movies starting with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Not only was this my introduction to Dracula, but to horror movies in general, for that reason, I can think of no better way to celebrate Stokers birthday that to talk about one of my favourite Hammer Horror movies.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

“There’ll be no morning for us”

The movie starts with a prologue made up of the closing scenes of the previous film (the first Hammer Dracula) complete with a voiceover explaining the destruction of Dracula (Christopher Lee). We cut to a group of English tourists including Charles Kent (Francis Matthews, a sort of low rent Cary Grant type) who are stranded by a superstitious coach driver whist on their way to Carlsbad. After a coach and horses turns up out of nowhere, they find themselves rescued and accepting the “hospitality” of a dead count in his mysterious castle. I won’t give the plot away but I think you can guess that the castle belongs to Dracula and it is no accident that they have found their way to his castle.

An interesting movie, the story is original but holds many similarities with the original, this is evident in the characters. The traditional Van Helsing character (played by an un-credited Peter Cushing in the prologue) is replaced by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir who went of to play Prof. Quatermass in the Hammer movie Quatermass and the Pit). Charles and Diana Kent (Francis Matthews & Suzan Farmer) are a good stand in for Jonathan and Wilhelmina Harker. Ludwig (Thorley Walters) fills the Renfield part. The movie did two things for the genre: it set the template for the Hammer Dracula movies and also opened the floodgates for Dracula (and vampire movies in general) to move away from the original Bram Stoker novel. Directed by Hammers greatest director Terence Fisher the film has a perfect blend of carefully manipulated tension and just enough gore and horror to make this a great atmospheric movie that only Hammer could have made. There has been some contention as to why Christopher Lee’s Dracula is mute, whatever the reason it just makes it more sinister. A Must for all classic horror fans. The significance for this movie for me goes beyond the film itself, had I not seen it, I would not have become interested in Hammer Horror and certainly would never have read Bram Stokers original novel.

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Talking about James Bond in last weeks Radio Times, film critic Barry Norman made the statement: Ask anybody: who is your favourite James bond? I guarantee the answer will be the first one they ever saw”. I’m not sure if I am more discerning or just awkward, but it isn’t true of me. To the best of my knowledge and memory the first Bond I saw was Roger Moore in Live and Let Die. Moore is far from my favourite Bond, but I have recently come to the conclusion that I don’t know who my favourite Bond is! For years I have always claimed it is Sean Connery with the caveat that Timothy Dalton is the closest to the character from Ian Fleming’s novels.

I hold with the popular opinion that George Lazenby was the worst Bond, and this is a great shame as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the best Bond films despite him. He is closely followed by Roger Moore whose comic version of Bond just doesn’t work for me. He did however make some decent movies, Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me were both really good films. The Man with the Golden Gun isn’t as good but does benefit from a fantastic performance from Christopher Lee as the villian Scaramanga.

So Back to who is my favourite Bond, Sean Connery certainly had the best stories with relatively faithful adaptations of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball. You Only Live Twice is the point where the franchise started to get silly and even became a parody of itself, it was however still a good film in its own right. Connery’s only misstep was Diamonds Are Forever that was both silly and dull.

I have already said Timothy Dalton most closely resembles the character from the books in his portrayal, but there is another actor who probably looks most like Bond, Pierce Brosnan. This may be a bit of a stretch as there is little description of Bonds appearance beyond his short black hair and a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael. Pierce Brosnan isn’t my favourite Bond either. He is perfect for the films he made and the time they were made, but sadly most of them weren’t actually very good. After a strong opening with GoldenEye the rest of his films got progressively worse culminating with the car crash of a movie, Die Another Day that was as bad as anything Moore did.

This leaves us with two contenders: Timothy Dalton who was hamstrung by only making two appearances both of them being good but not great films, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Had he made more films he could well have been my favourite Bond but for reasons to long winded and complicated to go into today he didn’t. And finally Daniel Craig, Casino Royale is certainly one of my favourite Bond films and Quantum of Solace is underrated and will probably age well, but is he my favourite? Not yet but he may well be in future, with three more movies including Skyfall due out next month, he will certainly have a chance before handing his Aston Martin and Walther PPK to Michael Fassbender, my choice for the next James Bond.

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Legend is a word that is used too lightly but with a career that has spanned eight decades and a Guinness World Record of 275 films, Knighted for services to drama and charity in 2009 and receiving the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011, it is a title that fits Christopher Lee very well. As I mentioned a couple of years ago I was introduced to Christopher Lee when I was about ten years old, I had no idea who he was. A few months later Channel 4 started showing a series of old Hammer Horror movies starting with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. This is when I first got interested in horror movies. So today, his 90th birthday here is the briefest overview of his movies.

In the mid 1940’s Lee joined the Rank Organisation and was given a seven-year contract (as was the norm of the day), during this period he made numerous movies. His first significant roles came a decade later when in 1957 he played the monster in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein alongside Peter Cushing as Frankenstein. The following year Fisher made Dracula (1958), he cast Lee in his most iconic role Dracula and Cushing as Van Helsing. He reprised the role in sequels: Dracula Prince of Darkness in 1965, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Lee’s other work for Hammer included The Mummy (1959), Rasputin, the Mad Monk and the little known classic Taste of Fear (1961). Possibly his best Hammer movie and one of his (and my) personal favourites was the occult adventure/horror/thriller The Devil Rides Out (1967) based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley. He also appeared in two versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) and I, Monster (1971) (only the former being made by Hammer).

Having already played Sir Henry Baskerville (to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes) in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) Lee went on to play Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), and Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock’s smarter brother) in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). He played Holmes again in the TV movies: Incident at Victoria Falls (1991) and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1992). A step-cousin of author Ian Fleming, he was rumoured to be in contention to play James Bond, he was offered the part of Dr. No in the movie of the same name (1962) but was vetoed by the movies producers. He did eventually play a Bond villain, Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and was the best thing about the movie. As cinema, particularly horror cinema changed in the 1970’s the gothic horror he was most famous for became outdated he appeared to be moving with the times making one of his best horror films The Wicker Man (1973). Sadly the quality of his roles dried up with a lot of TV movies and lesser work in the decades that followed.

More recently his career has gone through a renaissance with a small part in Sleepy Hollow (1999) leading to further collaborations with Tim Burton: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012). Following Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness who appeared in the original Star Wars (1977) Lee plays Sith Lord, Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). But his most notable role in recent years came in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A great fan of The Lord of the Rings Lee has stated that it was a life long dream to play Gandalf, the Peter Jackson film trilogy came too late for him to realise this ambition but he did get a significant part in the movies playing Saruman. Later this year he will be reprising the in the prequel film The Hobbit. Retuning to the studio that made his name Lee had a small part in the new Hammer movie The Resident (2011). More significantly for a actor who has made so many movies he appeared in Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema Hugo (2011).

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