Supernal Dreams: Christopher Lee on “Horror of Dracula” & “Curse of Frankenstein” – showing at the “Shock it to Me!” festival
Christopher Lee is featured in two of his Hammer Horror classics at SHOCK IT TO ME! San Francisco’s annual horror film festival, this Saturday afternoon, October 19, when a double-bill of Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) will be presented at the historic (and haunted) Castro Theatre.
Get full details on the two day event here: http://shock-it-to-me.com/
To celebrate this classic revival, here are some excerpts from an interview with Christopher Lee talking about the two films, conducted in 1984, when Mr. Lee was still living in Los Angeles.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you first played Dracula had you seen Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I was determined not to see the Lugosi film, and I didn’t for years. I didn’t want to do any of the things he’d done, and I thought the idea of someone in the wilds of Transylvania, in full evening dress, a little bit incongruous. That’s not a reflection on Lugosi, who I never knew. He was a man of immense demonic power as an actor. As a young man he was a great romantic lead in his native Hungary. Among other parts he played Christ. All sorts of things like that – Hamlet, Romeo. The man had an enormous wealth of experience long before he came to the United States. He never learned to speak English properly; he only learned to speak it more or less phonetically. He was a gently, kind and understanding person. He had great tragedy in his life, there’s no secret about it, he became a drug addict, and was in and out of various institutions. He made many films, and played many parts that were not worthy of him. He was buried in Dracula’s cloak, that is true, it is something he asked to be done. I know this because his widow told me. His widow was at one time married to Brian Donlevy, with whom I did a picture in Hong Kong, called Five Golden Dragons. I knew Boris Karloff, he was a very close friend and he always used to tell me about Lugosi and the pictures they made together. He always used to say, “Poor Bela, poor Bela,” and he meant it very sincerely. He was a haunted man, but I think haunted and tormented by the fact that the pictures he did in the latter part of his life were simply not worthy of him. He was as tall as I am, I understand. His voice, of course, is one of the most imitated in the history of movies. We all know it, we’ve all done it, just for fun, at one time or another. (Imitating Lugosi), “Good eve-ening.” So I never copied him in any way. I played the part by reading the book, by reading the script and putting into it what I thought needed to be done. First of all, he is a nobleman, so he must be noble in his physical presence, and impressive. I believe that Dracula was not only mortal, but very much to be pitied. The sadness of a man who would very much like to be free. In Stoker’s book, there is a great look of peace on his face when he is killed. So many aspects to a character like that; very dangerous, very fierce, superhumanly strong, irresistible to women, much respected by men, who wish they could be like that, and so on. All these things were in the book. Of course, nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest we ever got to the book was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Klaus Kinski. I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons. So the first time I played it, I enjoyed it, and we had a lot of fun. Peter Cushing and I used to giggle a lot, and behave disgracefully. You have to keep your sense of humour in situations of that kind. All the time we’d keep saying to each other, wouldn’t it be marvellous if I could do this, if I could do that, because it would get a big laugh, and the director says, “That’s not quite the intention of the picture!” Then there was one instance where I had to pick up this girl, and charge across the graveyard, where I’ve conveniently dug a grave, and throw her into it. The lady was a stunt lady, because I had to really throw her into the grave, although there was a mattress in there. So I rushed over and picked her up, and then rushed across with her and flung her into the grave, and went straight in on top of her! (Laughter.) The director said, “It’s not that kind pf picture either.” So that happened, and there were times with those wretched contact lenses in my eyes I couldn’t see a thing. I’d start to cry, and charge past the camera, knocking everybody over, tears falling down my cheeks. That wasn’t intended. We made the second one, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, about eight years later. I didn’t speak in that picture. The reason was very simple. I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’ve very much mistaken. They were quite appalling. So gradually it began to lose its impact. The qualities of the scripts deteriorated, and the demands made on me were virtually nil. All I was asked to do was sort of stand around, and do things occasionally. I lost interest, and I’m sure the public did. I did the last one in 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and said, “That’s it!” When they started putting a character like that in a modern day period, it was pretty ludicrous. Sitting in a high-rise, calling himself D. D. Denham, and playing it as a cross between Dr. No and Howard Hughes. It was absurd. So that was the reason I stopped. I suppose it became too easy for people, and I as an actor didn’t want to go on doing the same thing. So I said, “Enough is enough. You’ve spoiled a great character.” Do you know how many actors have played that since I’ve stopped? Between 10 and 20! Jack Palance, Louis Jordan, Klaus Kinski, David Niven, Frank Langella.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you see the Frank Langella Dracula film?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No. I’ve only seen Langella once, and that was in Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs. John Badham directed Langella’s Dracula – a very good director – and I understand Laurence Olivier played Van Helsing. But it’s still not the Stoker story. The only thing that would ever tempt me into playing that part again, would be if it was totally and completely faithful, word for word, line for line to the book. It may never be done. I imagine it would cost a fortune.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you ever approached about doing the Broadway version of Dracula in 1977?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, a man came to see me at my hotel in Washington, and asked me to read it. He told me it was based on the original play, presumably that would have been the Hamilton Deane script. I read it, and made up my mind that it was extremely dangerous, because in today’s day and age, if the original was done exactly as written, it would get a lot of unintentional laughter. The language is very Victorian, and outdated, and is very, very dramatic. So I didn’t think it was possible to do it, and I said so. What I didn’t realize was, that the way they were going to present it was, for lack of a better word, high camp. So it worked extremely well, and was an enormous success. But I was under the impression that they intended to do it seriously, as a faithful representation of the original play, which is why I said no. I thought it would get a lot of laughs in the wrong places.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You have also done a documentary on the real-life Dracula, Vlad Tepes.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, called In Search of Dracula, directed by an American living in Sweden, Calvin Floyd. We went to Transylvania, which is both Romanian and Hungarian, and very beautiful, too. It’s exactly like the book – mountains and mists, castles and bats – quite extraordinary. We ended up in a very old town, Pojana, with a great ruined castle, and it was cold and dark, and the moon came out as we were approaching the doorway of our lodge, and a bat flew straight across over my head. The director said, “They know!” (Laughs.) He was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was a real-life monster. He impaled thousands of Turks after one battle, and then ate amongst the corpses! Vlad’s father was the Transylvanian ruler of the province of Wallachia, Vlad the II, and was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. So he was called Vlad Dracul, which meant dragon. Vlad the Impaler simply signed his name, Vlad Dracula, with an “a” on the end, which meant son of the dragon. Stoker knew this, and he also knew the Romanian word for devil was also Dracul. So he based the book on the historical Dracula.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I understand you’re not particularly fond of The Curse of Frankenstein.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: The only reason I didn’t enjoy that was because of the great discomfort of the make-up. As somebody said, I looked like a road accident, which was not far from the truth. The problem we had with that particular make-up, is that the original, unforgettable make-up that Boris wore, was the copyright of Universal. So we couldn’t even attempt to imitate it. So Phil Leakey, the make-up man, and I got together and tried out some of the most unbelievable looking things you’ve ever seen! We ended up with something that did look vaguely like a human being. That was in 1957, and of course, now look what we’ve got: heart transplants, kidney transplants, arms being sewn on. The mind really boggles at what lies ahead. Who knows? The secret of life itself may be just around the corner. So that was primarily why I didn’t like the picture, purely in terms of discomfort. Also, on the first day of shooting, I rushed into Peter Cushing’s dressing room with a rather alarming effect, with all that make-up on, and said to him: “Look at this, I’ve got absolutely nothing to say in this film, nothing at all!” He said, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s strange how genre films were treated back then with great condescension by the critics. It was certainly the case with many of the Hammer films.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think that’s true. I think there’s a regrettable inclination on the part of the press, to treat this kind of picture as if it’s less than top-class. It doesn’t rank up there with the great comedies, the great Westerns, the great dramas. That’s nonsense, of course. Absolute nonsense! As I mentioned before, something like Rosemary’s Baby, or Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein, is work of sheer genius. So it’s absurd to downgrade this kind of film. I believe that this kind of film is most certainly amongst the most popular kinds of pictures anybody ever goes to see. So the people who work in it, the writers, the directors, the actors, and so on, have, to be honest, never received the recognition that, I think, they deserve. I really mean that.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Certainly director Terence Fisher was vastly underrated by the critics.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, Terence, who is, alas, dead, was a tremendous director. I’ll tell you, the direction he gave in those pictures, and the performances in some of those pictures, are a hell of a lot better than they are today! It was more difficult then. You didn’t have all these ancillary devices that they have today. He was a dear, dear man. He used to keep me awake all night long, when we were shooting on location, because he smoked non-stop, and coughed non-stop, all through the night. He was a delightful person, who never did get the recognition that he deserved.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I get the impression that the early Hammer films were made special, by everyone working together as one big, happy family.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we were a very happy group of people. The technicians, the actors, and everybody. It was a tiny studio on the river Thames, near the town of Windsor, where the castle is. I used to drive down there at four in the morning, usually in the fog, during the winter. Originally, it was a private house converted into some very small sound stages. That was for The Curse of Frankenstein. Then they built the stage for Dracula, which was gigantic by their standards. They really did regenerate the whole genre of fantasy film, as I prefer to call it, and they should take credit for that. The real stars of the Hammer films were the technicians. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but it really is true. Bernard Robinson, the art director, worked miracles on a budget which was alarming! Jack Asher, the first cameraman, his work was brilliant. Together all these people really created the results that you see in these films.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: There was also an ongoing use of the same character actors.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we had our repertory company. They were all so good, and so versatile. Two who come immediately to mind are Michael Ripper and Miles Malleson. I remember Michael as the drunken poacher in The Mummy. He sees me and can’t believe his eyes. Somebody says to him, “Maybe you’ve been seeing the little people.” He says, “It’s the biggest little people I’ve ever seen!” (Laughter.) Then Miles Malleson was also very, very funny. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when he came in as the Bishop, it was very difficult not to laugh.
CHRISTOPHER LEE on DRACULA – PART TWO
While looking at the second issue of of Cinefantastique, from January, 1971, I was astonished to find it also featured a beautiful two-page photo spread on Christopher Lee’s (at the time) upcoming version of COUNT DRACULA. Here’s the brief text for the five photos featured. The text is obviously incorrect, as it was probably confusing Hammer’s upcoming DRACULA A.D. 1972 with Lee’s Spanish production of COUNT DRACULA, but it was clearly based on the conflicting information available at the time:
Scenes From DRACULA ‘71, currently in release through AIP and formerly titled COUNT DRACULA. Christopher Lee appears a mustachioed Dracula, more faithful to Bram Stoker’s original conception than any other. Through the course of the film, Dracula becomes progressively younger and mouths dialogue much the same as Stoker wrote it.
Looking at the COUNT DRACULA stills featured in that second issue of CFQ, one can only wonder why the production turned out so badly. Well, in retrospect, it’s quite obvious. Mr. Lee had a bad script and a really bad director, Jess Franco. Let’s face it, Franco isn’t exactly a Terence Fisher or a Francis Coppola, is he? What’s even more astonishing is that Franco would attempt to even dare edit fragments of the greatest American director of all time – Orson Welles – into a supposedly completed movie. I’m speaking of course of DON QUIXOTE, and what Franco did to this footage of Orson Welles should ban him forevermore from the world of movies, for committing “crimes against the arts and humanities.”
In any case, as Christopher Lee states above, through no fault of his own, Jess Franco’s COUNT DRACULA turned into a real “mess” of a movie. But, even today, looking at the marvelous stills on display in CFQ, I would think COUNT DRACULA could have been quite a good film, if only a competent director had been at the helm.
But as Christopher Lee notes, “there is no point in going over the past.” However, the concept Francis Ford Coppola used in his version of the Stoker novel, did feature some of the same elements Lee wanted to use in his definitive version of the Stoker novel. So here are some of Mr. Lee’s more recent comment’s about the Coppola version of DRACULA, recorded in 2002 when I spoke to Mr. Lee about his role in Peter Jackson’s THE TWO TOWERS.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Ian McKellan said you startled him in one scene, where you sneaked up on him and then snarled at him, as if you were playing Dracula.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, no, not at all. That’s quite a good story, but I didn’t sneak up behind him. What he said was to be within three feet of a Lee snarl is rather unsettling.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you didn’t try to scare him by playing Dracula?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, not at any time. That part was last played by me over 30 years ago! I have no connection with it whatsoever. Nor do I wish to have.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Actually, I thought it would have been marvelous if Francis Ford Coppola had used you to play Dracula at the beginning of his version of the movie. You could have played the Count in Transylvania, exactly the way Stoker described him, as an old man with a mustache. Then, when Dracula arrives in London and starts drinking blood, he would grow younger and be transformed into Gary Oldman!
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, there’s no point in going over the past. These things either happen or they don’t and it’s too late now. I did see Coppola’s version, and while he’s done some wonderful films, his DRACULA was not the Stoker novel. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got, was when I did COUNT DRACULA in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it turned out to be a real mess. In Coppola’s movie, Gary Oldman did not have a mustache, and he was wearing what looked like a red dress! He also had a hairstyle that I thought was absurd. It certainly wasn’t how Stoker described the character. In the book, Stoker describes Dracula as wearing black from head to toe, without a single speck of color about him. But as far as I’m concerned, that character is very much in the past for me, and I’m really not all that interested in talking about the past. Only the present and the future.
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