Archive for Christopher Lee
I must have received psychic signals from Transylvania (and Mr. Peel) that it was Sir Christopher Lee’s birthday this week as I’ve been on a serious Hammer Films/Dracula binge all month. Although I grew up a total Monster Kid, bathed in the glow of “Creature Features” amid all the usual genre toys and magazines, I was never a hardcore Hammer Films devotee; I loved the bosomy women and gothic gore, but the films tended to be “stiff upper lipped,” demanding writers and directors who could kick the doors off the gentile English horror. Terence Fischer had a nice classicist eye though I prefered Roger Corman’s stylish and lively AIP Vincent Price pictures. Of course, I was always enthralled by Lee and Peter Cushing, the Lennon-McCartney of the 60’s Hammer genre, but I didn’t completely give myself over to Hammer because the films felt too cold, uncaring and cynical. Yet that’s exactly what separated them from their American cine-brethren: Cushing’s Victor Von Frankenstein was a callous brute, even having his maid-lover murdered to keep her bloody well quiet. Lee’s Dracula had little ingratiating charm like Lugosi, but was more feral and imposing. The films were spartan in their sentimentality.
I did have a selection of Hammer Films that I adored growing up, particularly Ray Harryhausen’s ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1963), oddities like THE LOST CONTINENT (1968) and sc-fi classics like QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1968) along with Hammer off-shoots such as THE ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (1966). And let’s not forget the only Hammer Film to be nominated for an Academy Award: WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) featuring Jim Danforth’s excellent Oscar-worthy effects. Often the elements were there for potential greatness, as in CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974), whose title alone should have made it a smash. Christopher Lee tired of the cultural-commercial machinations his Prince Of Darkness was subjected to, even though DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) was Hammer’s biggest hit, with help from a clever camp marketing campaign (see above) and the colorful direction of Freddie Francis. Still, one can sympathize with Lee after DRACULA A.D. 1972, featuring a pack of swingin’ Londoners who dabble in the black arts; a silly film saved by Cushing’s sincerity and Lee’s bloodthirstiness (but it’s still fun: mod vampires!). The last Peter Cushing and Hammer Dracula epic, THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974) is a fantastic kung-fu blood-sucker mash-up and with more energetic, inventive direction, could have been a classic. Hammer was in dire straits in the mid-70’s, so much so that they took out an ad in “Famous Monsters Of Filmland” asking fans to send in a checklist of what they wanted to see next onscreen (I filled mine out but neglected to send it off).
Thanks to the advent of widescreen VHS and DVD releases, I’ve been revisiting Hammer Films over the past decade, finally getting a chance to savor them in their proper cuts and aspect ratios. Many hold up quite well, and if they lack the vitality of their Yank counterparts, they more than made-up in style and exploitation. As stated, the Hammer babes were the best: Ingrid Pitt, Raquel Welch, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, among others. The sexual vibes were more pronounced and again, the performances of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee always elevated the deficiencies in plot or direction. I’m thrilled Hammer Films is back in business and look forward to a new generation of cinematic sci-fi gothic burnt offerings. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Sir Lee.
To my heirs:
In my lifetime, I have recorded some sixty cases demonstrating the singular gift of my friend Sherlock Holmes — dealing with everything from The Hound of the Baskervilles to his mysterious brother Mycroft and the devilish Professor Moriarty. But there were other adventures which, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date. They involve matters of a delicate and sometimes scandalous nature, as will shortly become apparent.
Since Arthur Conan Doyle’s perennial deductive literary creation is making a big-screen comeback, I thought it high time to dip into the dusty tincture of other celluloid Holmes and examine an artifact from another era. Of course, I speak of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his truncated 1970 Road Show glimpse into the man, the myth and the pipe. Wilder and favored screenwriter I.A.L Diamond envisioned the film as a three hour epic, with four separate episodes connected by a larger story. Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers were set to star but the whims of fate led Wilder to settling for little-known actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, who he thought would be more vulnerable than well-known stars.
This brave but suicidal box-office decision led to the film receiving far less attention than it should have, and the real death-blow came with United Artist’s decision to reduce the three-hour Road Show with intermission down to two-hours, mucking up the intricate screenplay and Wilder’s intent to create a “symphony in four movements.” Originally, there were to be four stories showing Holmes and Watson in various deductive modes, from comedy to melancholy, but the original prologue and two of the tales were trimmed — and sadly lost — forever. We can still read the complete screenplay to see how it would have played, and one is unsure whether the addition of “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” or “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” would have given the film more depth, but it likely would have given the characters resonance and completed the symphony.
Although I’ve yet to read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed series, I’ve always liked the Holmes mythology for its British eccentricities, such as his devotion to a seven-percent solution of cocaine. This is the first time the movies would deal with his addiction, and does so in a low-key humorous manner. Wilder and Diamond play with sub-textual aspects of his life and adventures, specifically why he mistrusts women so (we find out in one of the excised flashbacks to his college days) and the exact nature of his relationship with Watson. This leads to film’s most risque, amusing segment, wherein the deductive duo attend a Russian ballet and to get out of fathering a Countess’s child, Holmes admits that Watson is more than just his partner in crime. Especially funny is Watson dancing with a chorus of beautiful ballerinas only to be replaced one by one with painted male dancers. To Wilder and Diamond’s credit, the gay humor here is subtle and witty, and there’s no attempt to demean the characters with this “false” revelation. In fact, the episode ends on an amazing hint that Holmes might in fact not be what he seems.
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is also Billy Wilder’s most expensive (10 million dollars) and opulent film, with exquisite widescreen photography by Christopher Challis and a beautiful Miklos Roza score. Though there are few “stars” on display, Christopher Lee is a delight as Mycroft, Holmes’ smarter brother, and Lee counts this as a turning point in his genre-straddled career. There’s even an appearance by the Loch Ness Monster. Robert Stephens is a wonderful actor, though due to personal stress and strain, he was unwell during filming and sometimes it shows in his pale countenance and shaky hands. Colin Blakely is a lively Watson, yet he often seems like a stand-in for Jack Lemmon. They all know how to deliver the screenplay’s urbane dialogue, which is one of the real joys of the film. If you read the screenplay, you’ll see that it’s all there on the page, and Diamond was unwavering in the idea that no word could be changed or improvised during filming. If the actors veered from the script, he was actually allowed to say, “Cut.” Writers.
Though it was seen as old-fashioned upon release (not hardly except in directorial style and presentation), THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES reputation has grown over time, and remains one of my favorite Billy Wilder films and likely the definitive cinematic version of the Holmes mythos. It’s elegiac, melancholy, and as Kevin Jack Hagopian from the Media Studies at Penn State accurately stated, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is “…a valentine with a syringe in its hand.” Anything but elementary.
The legendary founder of the influential “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine has passed onto Prince Sirki’s side. Uncle Forry as he was known to legions of monster movie lovers, coined the term “sci-fi” (hi Harlan!), created the sexy “Vamperilla” and received Stephen King’s first short story (at age nine), as well as inspiring a generation of artists and filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Rick Baker, John Carpenter, Frank Darabont, Peter Jackson, Rob Zombie, Joe Dante, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis and many many more. Ackerman’s famous mansion in Karloffornia was once a shrine to monster memorbillia, with artifacts from the original DRACULA, KING KONG, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE, STAR WARS, etc. In fact, upon my pilgrimage there in 1988, I almost stepped on the White House model from Ray Harryhausen’s EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS…I brought my video camera along and taped Forry in his Dracula cape, wearing Bela Lugosi’s actual ring from the film, as he quoted lines from the movie.
I grew up surrounded by FM, courtesy of my brother, who underwent severe trauma when I demanded to tear up a few in four-year old monster glee. As I aged wiser, I kept my issues of the magazine in fairly excellent shape (a C-8, as some collectors might say) and they were a great source for news, information and cool photos for Godzilla films, Christopher Lee interviews, and Basil Gogos incredible colorful covers. Since Ackerman had grown up with Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury, much ink was devoted to their cinemagic. On top of all that, the ads in the back read like an ebay gold mine, with Aurora monster models going for $1.98 and amazing Don Post masks for $35.00; you could buy Super 8 film reels filled with highlights from FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON. You know, before VCR.
Sadly, Uncle Forry never had the benefit of a patron to properly house his treasure trove of fantastic books, props and monsters. You would think in the heart of Horrorwood, there would be funds to open a public museum. Instead, Ackerman opened his home to one and all, as people trekked from around the world to gaze upon the crumbling latex of the stegasaurus from KING KONG or the Golden Idol from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. He showed me a frail copy of a signed first edition of “Frankenstein” with a leaf from Mary Shelly’s actual garden inside; that was the coolest thing I saw that day.
I won’t go into all the awful legal tribulations Forry went through when he had his own magazine creation taken from him. Though he did win in the end, the years of courts and fees must have taken a lot out of him. But he was filled with child-like stamina and his famous awful puns never failed to make me laugh. FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was like a primer for genre fans, who would grow into other magazines or venues, but who would never forget the passion and influence of Forrest Ackerman. Here’s a very interesting letter he wrote to Harry Knowles contemplating his own death, for which he had no fear. And that might be the more subtle legacy of Uncle Forry’s life: he taught a lot of children to not fear, but embrace the unknown.
Back into the dust bin of excised film history and this time with an All Hallow’s genre list.
CREATION (1930) – Legendary stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien had achieved popular success with the release of THE LOST WORLD (1925) and this was to be his magnum dinosaur opus for RKO, a simple tale of a submarine crew who end up on an island trapped in jurassic time. After a year of expensive and intricate effects work, only a few reels of film had been shot, two of which remain and are pretty cool. RKO cancelled the production. That’s when old-school producer Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Shoedsack stepped in to save the film with their own story. Both were adventurer/filmmakers who fought in two war or three wars and travelled to remote, dangerous outposts to capture the wonders of the world on film. Cooper had an idea about a giant ape on an island…
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) – After the huge pop cultural success of the DARK SHADOWS TV soap opera, the studio rushed this into production and at least 30 minutes were sliced from Dan Curtis’s first preview version, yet it was a big hit. Some have claimed to see this version at drive-ins, but nobody has yet to find a complete print. This site has a complete list of the excised scenes. HODS is a fun, moody, gothic horror film and far more bloody than the TV series. Like the great ad tempted, “Come see how the vampires do it.” The sequel, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971) was also heavily cut after release.
THE WICKER MAN (1973) – It took me a long long time to finally see this ultimate cult pagan thriller that became a minor cause de celbre among film afficiandos of the 1970’s. The late great CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine started the critical support by devoting a cover story to the film and its star, Christopher Lee. Enough has been written about TWM so I don’t want to contribute much more to the gene pool, but if you haven’t seen it, do so. Now. A beautifully acted and written (by Anthony Shaffer) suspense mystery musical (yes), the film suffered a series of drastic cuts by the uncaring producers, eliminating character backgrounds and whole sequences, such as Lee’s wonderful night ode to nature while a young ward is initiated by Britt Ekland into manhood (no wonder he considers Lord Summerisle to be his favorite role). While some fascinating workprint scenes remain and were added to DVD versions last year, the full complete negatives are said to be buried under an English highway.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1982)/FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3-D (1983) – Somewhat embarrassed by the spectacular success of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980, Paramount Pictures treated their influential money-making slasher series like an unwanted step-child, especially after Siskel & Ebert went after the films in a famous early episode of SNEAK PREVIEWS (and Ebert defended his love of LAST HOUSE OF LEFT (1972) in a later episode). The MPAA cut only a few seconds out of FRIDAY THE 13TH, mainly involving an extra shot of an arrow twisting in Kevin Bacon’s throat.
After the HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH imitations reached a bloody crescendo, the MPAA was ruthless with the remaining FRIDAY THE 13TH films. Almost every single murder was cut down to the bone (ha), including such indelible moments as two lovers getting speared from FT13TH PART 2, and the acrobat’s entire body cleaved in half from the wild and wacky FT13TH PART 3 IN 3-D, which I saw opening night on Friday the 13th with one of the greatest screaming audiences ever. You have to treasure a film that has a three dimensional flying eyeball. The original climax of FT13TH3-D also had the heroine getting her head cut off by Jason, which I think would have been fine instead of the more subtle bubbles on the lake. I’ve also always wanted to see the original ending shot for FT13TH PART 2, a slow zoom-in to Mrs. Voorhees withered head on a table…as her eyes open and she smiles. Brrrr.
THE FOG (1980) – John Carpenter’s anticipated follow-up to his ground and record breaking HALLOWEEN was this Val Lewton ghost story throwback to an earlier era of mysterious supernatural horror. Check out the rare nifty teaser trailer here. Sadly, Carpenter felt he might have played it too old-school, as he felt the first cut was a disaster, lacking the scares and shocks that modern audiences craved. He re-shot new scenes, including more gore,; the cool close-up of Rob Bottin’s “Wormface”; Adrienne Barbeau pursued by the undead pirates atop the lighthouse; and the “shock” ending. Interestingly, Carpenter felt the same way about HALLOWEEN II and re-shot new bloody scenes against director Rick Rosenthal’s objections. I like THE FOG for its misty horror movie atmosphere and there are some effective Carpenter set-pieces, but it would be fascinating to see his first cut and measure its subtly against the visceral re-cut version.
CREEPSHOW (1983) – George Romero and Stephen King’s terrific, affectionate tribute to the gruesome 1950’s E.C. Comics is one of my favorite genre films, with a fun ensemble cast and a perfect tone. Featuring some of Tom Savini’s best make-up effects including a fantastic corpse in “Father’s Day,” creepy water ghouls in “Something To Tide You Over,” and a wild claw-filled monster in “The Crate,” the film also duplicates the garish lighting of Mario Bava and comic book panels come to life. Even Leslie Nielson is excellent as one of the bad guys who’ll get what’s coming. The film ends on a gross comic high-note with E.G. Marshall chewing up the scenery along with thousands of cockroaches.
However, about 12 minutes was removed before the film was released, including more backstory sequences in “Father’s Day” and a whole sequence of a dismembered hand crawling after Leslie Nielson. Also shorn was the final image to “The Crate” — instead of the rather lackluster one of the monster bursting through the underwater box, originally the scene ended with Adriene Barbeau’s ravaged head floating up. Maybe we’ll get a more complete disc set at some point with all the scenes available for perusal. Or else.
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) – One of the most creepy unsettling TV shows of all time remains David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, the audacious 1990 cult phenomenon that put Lynch on the cover of TIME magazine and gave weight to the question, “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” TWIN PEAKS was the only show I would stay home on a Saturday night for, and I reveled in the genuine esthetic subversion of the series. TP had a weird, wonderful ambiance, yet the characters had a personal warmth that made such a dangerous town attractive. This was also the last time a TV series would frighten me, especially any scene with the supernatural killer “Bob.”
Because TWIN PEAKS ended on an unsatisfying anti-climatic note (Lynch told me himself that “we killed the golden goose” by solving the Laura Palmer murder) fans clamored for resolution and more of their beloved characters. Lynch perversely responded with one of his most abstract experimental films that alienated fans of the show by jettisoning almost every regular from the series — even though all had made filmed appearances. TP:FWWM focused on Laura Palmer’s debauched final days leading to her murder and is a polarizing movie among Lynch and TP fans. When I asked him about providing a “director’s cut” to include the excised footage, he told me, “I already made the director’s cut.” But there have been attempts to release the deleted scenes and Lynch has allegedly remastered the footage but various rights issues remain. This site has the most complete info on what many TWIN PEAKS fans would like to see someday.
One of my treasured tube memories is from 1978, when horror icon Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live (with musical guest Meat Loaf). To my young geek soul, this was some kind of cultural triumph. In its third season, SNL was on a comedy high along with John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mr. Bill and the others, including perennial guest host Steve Martin. At that time, NBC’s corporate marketing had nothing to do with guest host or band appearances, so we were spared today’s cookie-cutter roster of mediocre talents pimping their latest disposable wares that constitutes most of SNL’s guests today. Instead, you could see punk band Fear thrash the stage (put on at Belushi’s request) or Devo go through their electronic spasms. In other words, the cast often chose who would play with them.
Dan Ackroyd and Belushi, along with Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman, were big fans of Christopher Lee and demanded he host an episode. Lee was reluctant, not sure if he was going to make a fool of himself or be made a fool, but he went ahead and hosted what remains the third-highest rated show in SNL history — which I’ve only seen once: on Saturday Night in 1978. I never forgot the terrific “Mr. Death” sketch with Lee playing an apologetic Reaper to Newman’s outraged little girl (she threatened to quit the show unless she was given the part). Here’s what Lee had to say about this odd appearance in an interview with Total Film:
What prompted your decision to move to America in the late ’70s?
I became totally disillusioned with the British film industry. Richard Widmark told me, “You’re wasting your time here. They’ll always be asking you to play the same sort of characters, you’ll get bored and so will the audience. You must come to the States.” So I did, and my life changed. I hosted Saturday Night Live, which was without doubt the most hilarious experience I’ve ever had, because I was working with Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd at the height of their powers. I’ve got a photograph, of which I’m very proud, of me and John Belushi, who signed it, “To Chris, you are the best in the biz, from John Belushi – second best.” SNL was also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career, because people like Steven Spielberg were in the audience, thinking, “Hang on. This man can be funny!” As a result, Spielberg asked me to do 1941.
I’ve been dying to see that episode again, and now we all can with the release of “Saturday Night Live Season Three” featuring the shows in their uncut glory — not to mention Christopher Lee’s sterling guest-host gig that led to his career resurgence. And led to him being cast as the gay biker in 1980’s underrated comedy, SERIAL.
UPDATE: I just watched the DVD and what a treat. Lee is perfect in a funny take-off on “My Fair Lady” with Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner as Barbara Wa-Wa, where they start to sing but don’t. After the sketch, you can see Lee kiss Radner on the forehead. And his intro to Meat Loaf is a hoot — ironic that years later Lee would act as the Narrator for a version of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Christopher Lee’s goodbye at the end of the show is rather poignant, as he’s clearly moved. How odd to finally see this after so many years…