October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror films starring the iconic Christopher Lee, is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Sir Christopher Lee had a one-of-a-kind career that is likely to never be rivaled. Lee’s on-screen career began in 1948 and would cross over eight different decades. The tall, slender actor with his booming baritone voice is likely most remembered for his work in horror, specifically opposite his good friend Peter Cushing in films from the Hammer Horror universe. But Lee’s resume goes far beyond that of Gothic horror. Nearly every major film franchise featured Lee at one point or another. Star Wars, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Lord of the Rings can all claim Lee as one of their own. The Airport, Howling, Curse, and Police Academy franchises can all do the same. Lee was so prolific that even the roles he turned down were impressive — most notably Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter’s Halloween, something Lee would later describe as his biggest regret. To put it mildly, Lee was a film icon and how you best remember him will likely depend on your age range and your favorite genre. Odds are, even those of you with the slimmest interest in movies will have some sort of familiarity with Lee’s work.
Christopher Lee also dabbled in music starting with “The Tinker of Rye” on The Wicker Man soundtrack. In the late ’80s, he would start performing opera, and eventually make his way to heavy metal. Lee provided backing vocals and narrations for other bands before releasing two metal concept albums in the early 2010s under the name Charlemagne. They’re incredible albums that only Christopher Lee could make.
When dealing with a career this grand, how do you narrow it down to a mere top ten? Well, it’s not easy and lots of good films are left on the outside looking in (Horror Express, Scream and Scream Again, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, etc.). Fortunately, that’s kind of what we do here. We talked it out and landed on a list that I’m sure everyone will agree with. These are the top ten Christopher Lee movies, as ranked by Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly.
10. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
In 1957, Hammer Horror took a stab at Mary Shelley’s iconic novel with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein. Peter Cushing takes on the role of the mad doctor and Christopher Lee is his Creature. It’s a bit of a landmark film being the first starring role for Cushing and the first Hammer production produced in color. In many ways, this is the film that launched the Hammer Horror brand. Make-up artist Phil Leakey was tasked with designing a menacing monster that was distinct and different from Boris Karloff and the Universal movies. The result, was grotesque and gory, especially for its time. Lee, cast in part due to his large height, doesn’t appear until the final half hour of the film and does not utter a line of dialogue. Still, Lee’s lumbering presence is felt and his sickly green, rotting skin and bulging eyes make an impact. And because he’s still a gentleman, he sports a snazzy peacoat. (Chris Coffel)
9. The City of the Dead (1960)
If there’s one thing this list attests to, it’s that Christopher Lee was really, really good at playing cult leaders. Then again, if someone two meters tall with that voice asked me to slap on a robe and partake in ritual sacrifice, I’d at least consider it. Directed by the fabulously named John Llewellyn Moxey, City of the Dead follows (initially, at least) Nan, a university student whose interest in witch trials takes her to Whitewood, Massachusetts. She makes the journey under the advice of her professor Alan Driscoll, who is played by Christopher Lee and is definitely not secretly a member of a longstanding coven duty-bound to sacrifice two virgins a year. Why would you even think that? Is it because Lee’s opening lines in the film are sampled in Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”? Did that give it away? As stately and sinister as ever, Lee looms over the film like a portentous shadow; suavely hinting at conspiracy, small-town secrets, and folk horror rumblings right up until the other pilgrim boot drops. (Meg Shields)
8. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
In The Devil Rides Out, Christopher Lee — famous for his work portraying Count Dracula for Hammer Studios — gets a reprieve from playing the villain for once. He swaps out a cape and pointy teeth for an impeccably shaved goatee to play Duc de Richleau, a Van Helsing-esque hero on a crusade against all things Satanic. But he is no stock character. Lee plays Duc de Richleau with nuance, giving us a cunning man who barks orders and bravely recites incantations, but doesn’t shy away from showing us his fears as his close friends become enshrouded by the occult. If you’re the type of person who enjoys your weekend mornings watching classic horror films over a cup of coffee, this film — and this performance by Lee — is made for you. (Jacob Trussell)
7. House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing made countless films together, but only once did they join forces with Vincent Price and John Carradine. In 1983, British filmmaker Pete Walker cast the four horror icons in House of the Long Shadows, a horror-comedy about an American author who rents a Welsh manor with plans to write a novel in 24 hours. The author’s plans are interrupted as unexpected visitors keep stopping by the house throughout the night. Lee plays Corrigan, a prospective buyer of the mansion who decides to stop in when he notices the lights on. The film plays out as a bit of a mystery with a handful of twists along the way, but more than anything it is a loving tribute to one of the most iconic eras of horror featuring the very stars that made it so. (Chris Coffel)
6. The Hound of Baskervilles (1959)
By the time Terence Fisher and Hammer produced their take on The Hound of Baskervilles, the famous Sherlock Holmes story had already been adapted more than a dozen times. But none of those previous entries had been in color, nor did they star the winning combo of Lee and Cushing! Cushing’s Holmes is a cheeky chap, always the smartest person in the room and sure to solve the mystery at hand, but does so while being just a little mischievous. Lee stars as Sir Henry Baskerville, the last of the Baskerville family who has recently returned home from South Africa to claim his inheritance and Baskerville Hall after the death of his uncle. Holmes and Watson (André Morell) are hired to investigate a curse surrounding the Baskerville family before it kills Henry as well. Unsurprisingly, Lee and Cushing work really well opposite one another. This is especially true in Lee’s introductory scene in which he quickly makes a fool of himself by assuming Holmes and Watson are hotel staff. Shortly after, Holmes saves Henry from a deadly tarantula and the film is off and running! (Chris Coffel)
5. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
In 1872, famous foes Dracula (Lee) and Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing) finally kill one another after an exciting battle on a runaway stagecoach. A hundred years later, a group of young hippies perform a ritual at an old church that raises Dracula from the dead. Fortunately, occultist Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing) has been waiting for this moment to follow in his namesake and defeat the Prince of Darkness. Loosely based on the Highgate Vampire case in London around the same time, Dracula A.D. 1972 was Hammer’s first attempt at bringing Dracula into the modern world. It’s a fun twist on the Hammer Dracula films that provides both Lee and Cushing with some new spice to work with. Think of it as Dracula gets groovy. The ritual scene with Caroline Munro as the sacrificial lamb is a Hammer all-timer and Lee’s delivery of, “It was my will,” when he first appears in the ’70s is chilling. Dig the music, kids! (Chris Coffel)
4. Death Line (1972)
Christopher Lee’s presence in this early 70s gem is brief as he appears only in a single scene, but it’s one hell of a scene. Donald Pleasence takes the lead as a slightly odd police inspector investigating a man’s disappearance in the London’s underground tube, and Lee is the government official who appears briefly to tell him to back off. It’s a ridiculous exchange, one laced as much with dry humor as it is with menace, and it speaks to the themes of class and access that sit at the heart of Gary Sherman‘s movie. You wouldn’t know it from the marketing highlighting the underground cannibals, or from the American title (Raw Meat), but this is as smart and sly a movie as it is creepy and horrifying. Double feature it with Christopher Smith’s 2004 flick Creep for three hours of thrills and chills in/on London’s underground. (Rob)
3. Horror of Dracula (1958)
Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) accepts a job working as a librarian for Count Dracula (Lee). Shortly after he arrives at the Count’s castle, Harker discovers that Dracula isn’t quite what he expected. Long story short, Harker ends up dead with Dracula planning to go after his fiancée (Carol Marsh) next. Her only hope is Harker’s friend, Dr. Van Helsing (Cushing). Horror of Dracula is arguably one of the most important horror films of all time. It was the first time that Hammer worked with Bram Stoker’s iconic character and the first time Lee would don the cape. It was a game-changer. Lee’s Dracula sports fangs, a first for the character at the time, that would soon become a staple. Lee would portray Dracula six more times for Hammer, making a case for being the Dracula, and it all started with this film. Its importance for that alone cannot be argued. As a bonus, it also happens to be a great example of gothic horror with Lee’s brooding performance both terrifying and intoxicating. (Chris Coffel)
2. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Gremlins as a film and story did not need a sequel. The first film wrapped everything up nicely, but it made a ton of money so the studio felt differently. Joe Dante decided to use this forced sequel as a chance to mock the very same corporate greed and capitalism that made it possible. It’s great satire that parodies the first film, gets very meta, and acts as a live-action Looney Tunes production. It didn’t come close to matching the success of the first film, but it did give us Dr. Cushing Catheter. Aside from having a great name, Dr. Catheter is the chief researcher at the Clamp Center. Really, he’s just a mad scientist funded by a billionaire and more than happy to run some tests on poor Gizmo. Lee’s portrayal is rather sinister and evil, making him a nice contrast to his goofy assistants, Martin and Lewis (Don and Dan Stanton). There are some fun nods to Lee’s filmography, but none better than the bat gremlin scene where Lee chats it up with Tony Randall. (Chris Coffel)
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man is so deliciously delightful on rewatches, especially Christopher Lee’s performance. Examine his first encounter with Sgt. Howie. Soak in the glee with which Lord Summerisle explains the island’s agriculture lore. The little policeman thinks he’s on a mission of rescue or justice. The repeat viewer knows what the Lord knows. Howie was lured here with a purpose. He’s just another piggy in the pen, making his way to the chopping block.
When Howie finally gets the picture and begins to cook, Christopher Lee lets it all hang out. The climactic Lord Summerisle is as satisfied as a person can be, his mechanizations tripping off just as they should have. Howie’s Psalm 23 makes way for the Lord’s cheery folk anthem, “Sumer Is Icumen In.” The harvest will be grand, and we accept the happy tidings cuz they were brought to us by Lee. (Brad Gullickson)
Christopher Lee called, and he strongly suggests you enjoy more 31 Days of Horror Lists!