On the day of his BAFTA Fellowship Award, I present ten of my favourite screen roles from the towering giant of British cinema that is Sir Christopher Lee. In chronological order:
1. DRACULA (1958)
The definitive screen Count, his controlled sinister charm making the neck-plunging even more effective when it strikes! At his best in Dracula (1958) and Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966), before the role grew ever more caricatured and rarely allowed Lee any dialogue. Dracula A.D 1972 has a curious novelty appeal however!
2. TASTE OF FEAR (1962)
One of the best in Hammer’s run of Black & White thrillers and Lee’s personal favourite of all his films for the studio. His Doctor Gerrard is only a supporting role but it’s one of Lee’s most restrained and likeable performances.
3. DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)
Lee plays art critic Franklyn Marsh, whose caustic put downs result in a visit from the Beast With Five Fingers! The best segment in an otherwise weak first horror compendium from Amicus.
4. RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK (1966)
A full-throttle melodramatic performance here from Lee as Russia’s Greatest Love Machine (the mad ra-ra-rascal!)
5. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
Hammer’s classic screen adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s occult thriller sees Lee in heroic mode as the charismatic Duc de Richleau. A peerless performance.
6. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
Having previously played Sherlock and Sir Henry Baskerville on film, here Lee has a small but very effective role as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s wonderful interpretation of Holmes.
7. I, MONSTER (1971)
Amicus’ take on Jekyll & Hyde allowed Lee the opportunity of playing the dual role from the novella he loved. Shame they had to entirely change Stevenson’s character names though.
8. HORROR EXPRESS (1973)
All aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway for a real ‘B’ Movie treat as Lee’s Professor Saxton boards the train with the frozen remains of a primitive creature. Next stop, Terror Central, calling at Cheap-Scares Common and Chills-On-A-Budget Parkway!
9. THE WICKER MAN (1973)
Lee’s contribution to the greatest British horror film is not only his terrifying on-screen Lord Summerisle (That singing! That wig!) but also his off-screen championing of the film, which has doubtless helped it’s current status as an enduring classic of cinema.
10. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
As Ian Fleming’s cousin, Lee was perhaps destined to play a memorable screen Bond villain (having been Fleming’s preferred choice to play Dr. No back in 1962) and you don’t get more memorable than the three-nippled assassin Scaramanga and his absurd fun house!
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Hugh Armstrong, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, June Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee
Released in America under the more sensationally titled Raw Meat, Gary Sherman’s horror curio is literally an underground classic. When British horror of the early 1970’s mainly consisted of the Hammer studios struggling to break free of their gothic cycle and Amicus studios making starry US co-produced anthologies, Death Line represented a small number of UK independent films influenced by the sleazier, gorier horror of early Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (the following years would see Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren both carve out a gruesome niche in this very style). Chicago-born Gary Sherman moved to London as a commercials director, but found that the London Underground provided the perfect backdrop for his directorial feature debut. Marketed as an exploitative splatter horror, the film poster’s tagline – “Beneath modern London buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels live a tribe of once human. Neither man nor woman, they are less than animals … they are the raw meat of the human race!” – neatly sums up the ‘lost race’ concept but is entirely misleading in respect to the film’s highly irregular narrative approach. Images of a scantily clad race of blonde zombies on the poster could not be further from the truth! So quite what audiences made of Death Line in 1972 one can only wonder, but it’s a fair guess that, depending on their taste, reactions would have ranged from baffled annoyance to joyous surprise.
Death Line is essentially split into two contrasting narratives, an overground/underground story divide as stylistically different in tone, design and direction as is possible. Firstly, overground we have the comings and goings at Russell Square tube station and a London of the early 70’s that’s not so much swinging as simmering. After some bizarre and groovy title music, two dreary 20-somethings Alex and Trisha find a man collapsed on a tube staircase and then bicker about it at length in their bed sit; a rather seedy Minister gets more than he bargained for after being rejected by a Soho prostitute; and Christopher Lee crops up as an MI5 agent for a 2-minute cameo sporting a terrible fake moustache which nevertheless bagged him a special writ-large title credit. Then there’s the wonderful horror stalwart Donald Pleasance, stealing the film as the grouchy tea-obsessed Inspector Calhoun, one of the greatest screen coppers and a clear forerunner to The Sweeney‘s Jack Regan. A gloriously eccentric performance filled with subtle ticks and quirks, Pleasance provides a much-needed comic tone to an otherwise grim and downbeat movie. In one delightful scene, the main plot is totally disregarded in favour of Pleasance getting hilariously drunk in an East End boozer. Earlier, over a nice cup of tea Inspector Calhoun is informed of a Victorian-era accident which trapped a number of men and women deep in the underground. Then with a sharp jump cut the film takes a startling turn …
In an astonishing 7-minute tracking shot, the camera slowly makes its way through a dark cave of unspeakable horrors. The noise of steady dripping water, a gradually increasing heartbeat and feral cries from an unseen creature accompany images of strewn decaying corpses. Eventually the camera pauses on The Man (Hugh Armstrong), a revolting wart-covered Neanderthal crying over his dying partner. The shot disappears through the damp mouldy walls, pulls back along a large disused tube tunnel and rises towards the noise of a train arriving at a busy Russell Square tube station. The sequence is an audacious side-step from the action that David Lynch would be proud of, enough for audiences to think someone had put the wrong reel in. Lingering on all the grisly details – crawling maggots, rotting flesh, pools of blood – the scene has the resolute ambition of the director stamped all over it. Later things get a whole lot nastier, as The Man drinks from the neck of a victim and gets particularly inventive with a spade. There are some truly shocking and incredibly gory attacks which were among the first of their kind in British cinema.
One of the first films to explicitly depict cannibalism, ‘The Man’ was making light work of carcasses two years before Frightmare‘s Dorothy Yates or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. Hugh Armstrong’s compassionate performance makes The Man simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, similar to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. He is a beast created through inhumanity and represents the fearful by-product of man’s own negligence. Apart from a series of wails and whimpers, The Man’s only words are the anguished repetitive cry of ‘MIND THE DOORS’, presumably the only words he has heard from above, which is both chilling and imbued with pathos. The film’s macabre eye for detail earned it a hardened fan base, including Guillermo Del Toro, who declared at a 2002 Lincoln Centre Horror season that it was one of his all-time favourites. Death Line even became respectable when it won the inaugural Golden Scroll award from the Academy of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. In 2000 a panel of critics named Death Line as one of the ‘Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century”.
Death Line could be described as slight and underdeveloped, clocking in at a mere 84 minutes, but as an exercise in brutal and unusual horror it can’t easily be dismissed. An essential film for any horror fan looking for something extraordinary – and verging on arthouse – beyond the canonical classics. It’s certainly enough to make you look twice next time you’re on the Piccadilly line!
Very much a forgotten gem of British Cinema and a masterclass in sharp observational drama, The Ploughman’s Lunch captured the caustic nature of Thatcher’s Britain during the Falklands war like no other film, and found critical appreciation both at the cinema and as part of Channel 4’s inaugural Film On 4 season. The film also became famous for surreptitiously filming scenes against the backdrop of the 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, similar to the use of the Democratic National Convention backdrop in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), even including footage of Margaret Thatcher’s speech.
Jonathan Pryce stars as the ambitious BBC radio journalist James Penfield, who has been commissioned to write a book on the 1956 Suez crisis at the same time as the Falklands War begins to dominate media coverage. During his research Penfield pursues the equally odious Susan in order to get assistance from her mother Ann Barrington (the excellent Rosemary Harris), a noted historian, who he eventually sleeps with in order to secure the fate of his book. Pryce’s compelling performance makes his sullen and pointedly unsympathetic character difficult to take your eyes off, despite being one of the most selfish leading men ever put on screen.
Ian McKewan’s script is unsurprisingly thorough and novelistic in its use of recurring themes and acutely observed characterisation. The prominent theme is the manipulation of truth – in the selective rewriting of history (the Suez Crisis), media coverage (Penfield dictates radio news scripts), and most devastatingly, the rewriting of one’s own history and personality. For example, Penfield is ashamed of his working-class parents, telling people they are dead. The film’s bleakest scenes show him grudgingly visiting them and showing no compassion for his mother’s terminal illness. Similarly deceptive, Ann’s marriage to Advert Director Matthew Fox (Frank Finlay) is a sham, existing for purely economic reasons. Matthew’s own arena of advertising is of course built on fabrications, as his character explains that the titular Ploughman’s Lunch is nothing more than a marketing trick, a 1950’s invention dressed up as an archaically traditional meal.
The Ploughman’s Lunch succeeds in making its thoroughly unlikable set of characters incredibly watchable. Like peering into a nest of vipers, the film reveals a morally and emotionally bankrupt British media – a rot which the film projects throughout the whole of society. Every scene and almost every character displays a soulless self-interest, offering a doomed vision of a country heading towards total ethical deterioration. Richard Eyre’s direction gives events a moody grey outlook and, in one stunning sequence when Penfield stumbles across a protest camp in a Norfolk airbase, there’s an almost apocalyptic feel to the landscape.
The Ploughman’s Lunch is the kind of film that forces the viewer to dig deeper, each viewing uncovering new subtleties in theme and characterisation. A cynical, severe and intelligent drama, given its concepts of moral decay at the heart of media, politics and society, perhaps it’s the right time for The Ploughman’s Lunch to find a new audience – it’s clearly as relevant now as it was in 1983.
West Germany/GB, 1970 Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors, Karl Michael Volger, Christopher Sandford
“If you can’t have the real thing – you do all kinds of unreal things.” Deep End kicks straight in with a splash of darkest red paint (or is it blood?) hitting the screen to the sound of Cat Stevens’ But I Might Die Tonight, from which point the film takes it’s hold and doesn’t let go for 90 minutes. The sordid and unglamourous view of a London bathhouse in the 1970’s could only have been the product of a foreign filmmaker. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s outsider view perhaps reveals more about the quirks and vices of our nation than a homegrown talent could, ranking alongside Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as uniquely skewed depictions of ‘swinging’ London. Deep End was a co-production between Britain and West Germany and was filmed in both countries, the mix of English actors and peculiarly dubbed German actors adding a bizarre tone to the film’s already-bewitching style.
The plot concerns 15-year old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) taking his first job in a public bathhouse, once a proud monument to Victorian respectability but now mostly a haven for unsavoury characters and their sexual urges. So, maybe not the best place for the naive and idealistic Mike to get his baptism of fire, surrounded by mature lady clients looking for their sexual kicks, various depraved middle-aged men and a scarily perverse swimming instructor. Amidst this bubbling decadence, Mike’s attentions turn to his colleague, the provocative and beautiful Susan (Jane Asher), who soon becomes the focus of his dangerously obsessive adolescent fantasies. Asher’s Susan is no shrinking violet however, being manipulative and impulsively cruel almost on a whim – it’s a fascinating performance. The way she toys with Mike’s feelings, notably by seducing him in the cinema and then reporting him to the police for assault, reveal both her selfish and reckless streak. Moulder-Brown’s Mike is a captivating central character, not always likable but causing much empathy despite being frantically wayward, his soft plummy accent and sudden fits of rage raising the character above the usual coming-of-age teen. As the film swirls towards it’s shocking climax, the viewer is plunged deeper into the dark recesses of Mike’s ever more twisted psyche.
The brilliant centrepiece of Deep End is an extended sequence set in and around the seedy clubs of Soho, as Mike embarks on a crazy nighttime odyssey into London’s weird underworld. The repeated encounters with the hot dog vender (played by Burt Kwouk and incidentally the only genuinely likeable character in the film) have been compared to Wong Kar Wai’s similarly ultra-real snack bar scenes in Chungking Express (1994). Mike stalks Susan in and out of clubs and backstreets, stumbles across a chatty prostitute with a broken leg, steals a life-size cardboard cut-out of Susan (or is it?) and buys hot dogs for a couple of Liverpudlian girls. But to describe it is to take away the spontaneous surrealism of the events. The whole sequence is set to the sound of Mother Sky by Krautrock pioneers CAN, a 14-minute blast of grimy pulsating bass rhythms, trippy guitars and hazy vocals. It’s no exaggeration to describe this as the most audaciously demented quarter of an hour ever put into a mainstream narrative film!
Watching Deep End feels like you’ve somehow imagined it in a fevered dream, as if Mike’s confused desires spill out and effect the film’s aesthetic. The improvised quality of the performances and the blending of realist and surreal styles have the combined effect of a documentary as seen through an acid trip. The film lurches from absurd comedy (Diana Dors’ memorable scene as a sex-starved harridan; the out-of-control fire extinguisher) to startling symbolism (the ethereal underwater shots). In one scene, as passions increase in the bathhouse, a strange little man begins painting the wall dark red in the background, typical of the odd touches and vague symbolism that Skolimowski splatters throughout the film.
Funny, tragic, disturbing and delirious, Deep End is a singular masterpiece which sits right at the top of my choice for the most underrated British film and, along with Ken Russell’s The Devils, from the same maverick era, the film most deserving an urgent DVD release. Until then, bootleg copies are doing the rounds and I strongly recommend you find one.
Update 20/01/10: New Information On Official Deep End DVD Release! http://tinyurl.com/ydvo77b
I was lucky enough to see one of the first performances of Rupert Goold’s acclaimed staging of Macbeth at Chichester in 2007, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, and was gripped by what I considered a very cinematic approach to theatre, re-imagining the play as a gory horror film set in the clinical hospitals and kitchens of Stalin’s Russia. Afterwards, buoyed with a new appreciation of the play, I was compelled to revisit the key film versions of Macbeth – three very different approaches, which individually display each director’s unique style.
Orson Welles showed a repeated interest in the play, firstly staging an all-black 1936 stage production set in Haiti. His film of Macbeth (1948) was shot on a low budget in just 23 days, which Welles later admitted was a self-imposed limitation to see if “it might encourage other film-maker’s to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed”. The sets were made from papier-mache and take on an almost surreal grandeur. The lighting is dark and murky, creating a sense of heightened paranoia within the sparse, simple setting. The tone is really that of Macbeth-noir, unsurprising when it came off the back of Welles’ noir classics The Stranger (1945) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947), in many ways a perfect fit – Lady Macbeth’s ice-cool murderess is perfect film noir, as is Macbeth himself, the corrupt and fatally-flawed lead. The film was no exception to Welles’ continued battles with studio executives, who felt that the strong Scottish accents of the cast wouldn’t help the film commercially. The entire soundtrack was re-dubbed, whilst Welles left Hollywood for Europe, although he did later return at the studio’s request to cut 20 minutes from the film in 1950 and add a narration. Like many of his works, the version now available on DVD is restored to Welles’ original vision.
Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (1957) recasts Macbeth as a Samurai epic at the time of the feudal wars in medieval Japan. Like Kurosawa’s other historical films of the 1950’s, Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), this adaptation immerses itself in the natural elements. From the opening scenes of mist shrouding the barren countryside and the fierce winds, to the rain and lightning engulfing the woods, the natural world combines to control proceedings. Characters ride on horseback in and out of the mist as if guided to their ultimate doom by the elements, making the normally evil lead roles appear somewhat more sympathetic. The wood and castle are even given the name Cobweb, suggesting the duplicitous effect of the natural world, and at one point Toshiro Mifune’s Taketori (the Macbeth figure) even fires an arrow up towards the treacherous lightning in the sky. The scene of Taketori encountering the unearthly Spirit in the woods, the old woman bathed in a translucent glow and gently spinning cotton, is surely one of the most beautiful sequences in movie history. Throne Of Blood is an exceptional, visceral film, which perfectly utilizes Kurosawa’s talent for impressive battle scenes. The film concludes not with a duel but with the magnificent image of countless darting arrows pinning the tragic Taketori to the wall of his fortress, having been turned on by his own men. This famous sequence was reportedly filmed using real arrows in order to give Mifune the desired look of terror, although this has been disputed.
Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth (1971) was his first feature since the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family, leading many to view the film as a violent cathartic exercise from the grieving director. It’s certainly the most unflinchingly violent adaptation of the play, even depicting the murder of Duncan in all it’s gory detail for the first time on film, rather than off-stage as written. The slaying of the MacDuff family in particular is almost too brutal to watch, especially given its obvious comparisons with the Tate murders. Certain scenes, such as the meeting with the witches and the apparition in the woods, dip the viewer into the terrifying world of the surreal, a dark hallmark of Polanski’s work as seen in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). As well as the horrific style, Polanski took controversial liberties with the play by casting 26-year old Francesca Annis as a much tamer Lady Macbeth and giving her a notorious nude soliloquy (but not so strange when it was revealed the film was being partly funded by Playboy magazine, although Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan maintained the scene was written before Hugh Hefner’s involvement). Jon Finch was also a comparatively young Macbeth at 29 years old. The film’s ending replaces Malcolm’s speech with a scene of Malcolm’s brother returning from exile with possible ambitions to reclaim the throne, suggesting that the evil in man is ever present – something Polanski had experienced all too graphically in the summer of 1969.
Apart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.
Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.
His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.
A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.
Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.
GB, 1971. Dir: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North
“Love means never having to say you’re ugly”. And so the poster tagline sets the tone for this hilarious little British horror from the early seventies. Vincent Price stalks around his art-deco jazz club, dragging with him a gramophone wired to his vocal chords and harbouring a peculiar grudge against nine people who tried to save his wife from dying. It’s that kind of film.
From an era when horror films were designed to be tremendous fun as well as being gruesome and frightening, Dr Phibes features one revoltingly elaborate death after another, but is done with such enjoyable panache you may well find yourself laughing at the bits that are meant to be funny. Yes, there’s no ‘so bad it’s funny’ awfulness here – Dr Phibes is a rollicking slab of comedy horror that knows exactly when to play it for laughs (which is actually for 90% of the film!). In one scene, Terry-Thomas is desperately trying to get rid of his old maid in order to watch some twenties-style porn (which, if you’re interested, involves a woman trying to swallow a snake!) before being interrupted by a girl who drains him of all his blood.
Price’s performance oozes delicious melodrama, remarkable considering he never speaks once in the film, all his lines are instead pre-recorded and played through the gramophone. And any film which has the line “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” has to be worth your consideration.