Count Dracula is a screen icon who simply won’t stay dead. From his first appearance in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to the upcoming TV series from Sherlock’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the classic vampire is set to rise again and again.
Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 Universal Horror picture is loved around the world.
But arguably one man gave audiences the definitive take on Stoker’s Count — Christopher Lee. He not only played the role but embodied it in a way that has yet to be matched.
In a 2017 article for the website Birth Movies Death it’s written that “Each moment he was onscreen was mesmerizing; a powerful domineering stance that demanded attention when he sauntered into the room, a flicker of intoxicating cursed madness that glimmered out from behind the eye that captivated and kept its audience under his thrall.”
He portrayed Sax Rohmer’s fiendish Fu Manchu for the producer Harry Alan Towers, and the Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) for Hammer.
Yet it was Hammer’s Dracula with whom he would forever be associated.
Born into money, Lee had a naturally aristocratic air that lent itself to the Transylvanian terror. A Guardian interview from 2001 mentions that despite “the protestations of his high-born mother, who considered acting infra dig and a profession only for people with no morals, Lee went on to make his name playing some of the most morally bankrupt characters of all time.”
Aside from his formidable presence, Lee’s respect for Stoker’s source material made him a natural choice to bring the author’s creation to ghoulish life. For his second Hammer outing, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), the Count had minimal dialogue. This, it turned out, was all Lee’s doing.
According to Birth Movies Death, he was unimpressed by the script and “expressed such contempt for the dialogue that he refused to utter a single word throughout the entire film. To Lee, if the British company refused to use Stoker’s original material from the book, then he didn’t see the point in using any of the words that the screenwriters had created in its absence.”
An unexpected by-product of this was the perception of Dracula as a man of few words. The actor had inadvertently but effectively demonstrated the old expression that “less is more.”
Lee was a pioneer of the Count’s celluloid exploits. It was 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From The Grave that first presented the Bible as a major opponent of the chiseled bloodsucker, one more powerful than any wooden stake or necklace of garlic.
He was also along for the ride when the Hammer Draculas became bloodier and saucier, not to mention more modern. His last two performances were in contemporary chillers Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satantic Rites of Dracula the following year.
Every villain needs a mortal enemy and Lee had perhaps the greatest in Peter Cushing. The star played Van Helsing and their antagonism was given added depth by the mens’ strong friendship offscreen.
Above all, Lee’s power as Dracula is best expressed in the legacy of those films. Though he regretted being typecast through the role, the body of work went on to inspire many of the best directors working today.
Speaking to the Guardian, Lee remarked that “if you compare those Hammer movies to what has been made in the last 20 years — Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Wes Craven, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson have all said the same thing to me: ‘We were brought up on your movies.’ And it certainly shows in theirs.”
Burton went on to repeatedly cast Lee, while Lucas and Jackson turned the aging thespian into Count Dooku and Saruman for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings respectively.
Would this have happened without Dracula’s influence? It’s highly doubtful.
Christopher Lee passed away in 2015, leaving behind a diverse and fascinating CV in which he played characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Francisco Scaramanga. However for many, he will always be Count Dracula, and the definitive neck drainer to boot.
To show both horror and tragedy all in one bite. That was what Christopher Lee brought to the table when he signed on as the Prince of Darkness.