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CHRISTOPHER LEE: A LEGACY OF HORROR AND TERROR
Produced by: Midnight Marquee Productions
Christopher Lee interviewed by Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller
Recorded Live at Monster Rally, August 1999, Arlington, VA, USA
Edited by A. Susan Svehla
In 1999 Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. published Christopher Lee's, U.S. edition of his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome. We arranged for Mr. Lee to attend our film convention Monster Rally (Really FANEX 13), held in Crystal City—Arlington, Virginia, USA. Christopher Lee was everything we expected and more. He was regal, tall, handsome and refined. But he was also warm and charming with his many fans who showed up at Monster Rally, shaking the hand of everyone in line and posing for photos for literally hours on end. One can never forget the sight of many grown men coming out of the book signing with their precious autographed book clutched in their trembling hands—and more than a few had a tear in their eye.
Mr. Lee was scheduled to speak for an hour on Sunday. The ballroom seated over 1,000 people and was standing room only. He spoke for well over an hour and a half to an enthralled audience. We hope Mr. Lee will always remember Monster Rally and the effect that his work and his very presence had on his many loyal fans who grew up with Hammer Films and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Mr. Lee is still active in film and is even now working with Peter Jackson reprising his role of Saruman for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He also worked with George Lucas in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and you will always find Mr. Lee as a character in almost all of Tim Burton's films. As can be seen by this list of Hollywood directorial royalty, Christopher Lee has influenced many of todays film writers and directors.
Of The Fellowship of the Ring film critic Gary J. Svehla notes: Saturday [Dec, 8, 2001] at 9 a.m. at the premiere theater in Baltimore, the historic Senator Theater, I attended a special press screening of Lord of the Rings under pristine viewing (and listening) circumstances. Simply stated, as Entertainment Weekly noted, the film is a solid A, and was my favorite film of that year. I could go on and on, but just to hit a few major points...
The film begins with a Gladiator–style epic battle sequence, but under the direction of Peter Jackson, the sprawling visuals are simply awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping. And this is only the beginning. The film seems closer to two than its actual three-hour running time. The visual contrast between the Brigadoon-style Shire and the horrors of Saruman's domain is again quite incredible. The thing that impressed me most about Lord of the Rings is its quotient of pure horror that I never expected. The spectral riders on horseback seeking out Frodo and friends makes Tim Burton's headless horseman seem quaint.
But let's talk about Christopher Lee as Saruman. In his two major scenes in the movie, he is at the top of his form, perhaps in this very important supporting role submitting one of his best performances bar none. In one sweeping visual sequence, Lee is outside atop a tower with his arms raised. The sweeping steadicam flies through space and zooms in on the imposing presence of Lee, but the camera does not stop there. Instead the camera swoops past the wizard and follows him, moving away, from behind. What a sequence. I can just play it over and over again in my mind. In Lee's best scene, and one of his all-time greatest performances ever, in a one-on-one sequence, Lee has a wizard's dual, throws Ian McKellen against the walls, up into the air, etc. Imagine AIP's The Raven, with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as the dueling wizards, done seriously, expensively, and with great special effects. It is almost as though Jackson wanted to create an homage to Lee.
In another great sequence, Lee is allowed to mesmerize the audience with his Lugosi-esque elongated extended fingers magical stance. Christopher Lee must have thought he died and gone to heaven, as this is his favorite novel and the role is among the finest of his career. For his fans, its seeing Lee the way we always dreamed of seeing him... at the top of his form in an artistic movie with a big budget to do it right.
Lord of the Rings is a triumph in every way, and the intensity Jackson gets from PG-13 rated violence seems almost R-esque. Ian McKellen, working under heavy costume and makeup, submits the performance of the movie, working mainly with his face (Jackson does some incredible things with tight facial closeups) and his subtle, quick reactions. It is a performance far richer than it first may appear. Much more natural and subtle than his James Whale.
But sadly, Lord of the Rings had not even begun filming when Mr. Lee attended Monster Rally, although he did drop a few tantalizing hints to the staff. But there was more than enough ground to cover as Mr. Lee talked about his family history; his war years; his beginnings as a young actor; having to audition for today's films roles, and telling the just-out-of-college interviewer, when asked if he had made any movies, only 150 or so! Mr. Lee talks about his good friend Peter Cushing; about working with the greats—John Huston, Orson Welles, etc. His stint at Hammer Films; his work in Hollywood on comedies and the dangerous stunt in Airport '77. Mr. Lee even performed a bit of opera and did his cartoon impressions that he and Peter Cushing used to break each other up.
Any fan of film history and especially those baby boomers who spent their weekdays just counting down the hours until the Saturday matinee and the newest film from Hammer, will enjoy this oral history of a film legend and the only remaining King of Horror Films.