Christopher Lee as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski in Pope John Paul II
Sir Christopher Lee was an imposing figure to the end. After news of his death arrived I went online and found a video of a recent interview. Straight as a rail even in his 90s and dressed impeccably, he towered over the interviewer, his deep voice still powerful as he answered questions and listened attentively.
Lee appeared in countless movies over the years despite having a fairly late introduction to acting and being hampered somewhat by his height. At six foot five, he was taller than nearly everyone else on screen. His films included some utter schlock, which he readily admitted to. But the horror films he was most proud of were ones that featured a deep moral and spiritual sensibility.
Where did this sensibility come from? Probably it sprang from two sources: the faith Lee was raised in and the art that fed his imagination. As a boy, Christopher Lee was an altar server in the same Anglo-Catholic parish that T.S. Eliot attended. As an adult, one of Lee’s favorite books was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He had the good fortune to meet the author once by chance in a pub, and said that the honor left him speechless. “I knelt of course,” Lee recollected years later, “each one of us said ‘how do you do?’ And I just said ‘Ho.. How.. How…’”
Famous for playing Dracula in the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s, he became dissatisfied with how he was expected to portray the character, even refusing to read from the script at times and attempting to insert dialogue from the original book. He finally broke out from being typecast in horror films when he was cast as the villain in a James Bond movie.
Along the way, rumors started by the press gave Lee a reputation as being a dabbler in the occult. Articles claimed that his library included tens of thousands of occult titles. In 2011 during a question and answer session at University College Dublin, he addressed the rumors: “I have met people who claimed to be Satanists, who claimed to be involved in black magic… I certainly haven’t been involved and I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind. You’ll lose your soul.”
It was Christopher Lee along with Ian McKellan and John Rhys-Davies who pushed Peter Jackson to keep his Lord of the Rings movies as close to the original vision of Tolkien as possible. Having seen some of Jackson’s movies prior to the LOTR trilogy, I’d have to say I don’t think he understands the moral / spiritual realm very well. (And I haven’t even bothered to watch the Hobbit films—the trailers were enough to convince me to stay away).
Horror has a bad reputation among most Christians. There’s a reason for this: lot of horror films and books are, to put it politely, trash. But in the hands of someone who is morally serious and spiritually aware, the genre can be quite good. Catholic writer Tom McDonald has his pick for the best Christopher Lee horror film at his blog, God and the Machine.
For some current examples of morally serious horror, you have the books of Tim Powers, a writer influenced by Tolkien’s fellow Inkling Charles Williams. Or Dean Koontz, whose Odd Thomas owes a lot of his charm to his spiritual certitude. In the movie realm, there’s Scott Derrickson, who also understands that evil is real and not to be trifled with. On the small screen, the television show The X-Files often included episodes that delved into horror with a good deal of moral clarity, though it was hit-and-miss.
The Ignatius Critical Editions include the classic horror novels Dracula and Frankenstein, film adaptations of which Christopher Lee appeared in. Lee’s Dracula films are discussed in one of the critical essays included in the Ignatius Critical Edition of that work. (That’s not the only Ignatius Press Christopher Lee connection: you can also find him as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski in the 2005 movie Pope John Paul II.)
Requiescat in pace, Sir Christopher.