Shock horror at movie legend's honours snub

January 4, 2008 (Belfast Newsletter) -- Kylie Minogue, the Australian singer and soap actor whose brave battle with cancer inspired millions, is said to be "deeply touched" to get an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours, as, presumably, is Richard Griffiths, who starred as a crime-solving chef in Pie In The Sky.

Sir Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Magneto in the X-Men films, becomes a Companion of Honour, an exclusive order which is restricted to 65 members including the Queen, while the BAFTA-winning actress Julie Walters and Leslie Phillips, who took over from Dirk Bogarde in the 'Doctor' series, each receive a CBE.

Christopher Lee as DraculaBut if there is one denizen of the acting realm for whom a knighthood is achingly overdue then that man is Christopher Frank Carandini Lee. The basso-toned legend -most famous, of course, for his near definitive portrayal of Count Dracula in seven bloody, brilliant Hammer films - was awarded the CBE in 2001, but advancement to KBE has thus far eluded him, despite a highly acclaimed entertainment career spanning seven decades.

From his professional debut in Terence Young's gothic romance Corridor Of Mirrors in 1948 to the actor's 2005 naming in a USA Today newspaper poll as 'the most marketable star in the world' (after three of the films he appeared in grossed $640million), Lee has enjoyed unparalleled international success for over half a century.

Following a ten-year period during which the actor played mainly stock action characters, Lee secured infamy as Frankenstein's monster in Hammer's 1957 production of The Curse Of Frankenstein, opposite Peter Cushing as the mad Baron. Subsequent work for 'the studio that dripped blood' included the title role in The Mummy; Grigori Rasputin in Rasputin, The Mad Monk; and Sir Henry Baskerville to Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

In 1958, Hammer followed up its version of Frankenstein with Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula), an instant genre classic which has gone on to influence scores of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. Lee's tenure as the undead count lasted until The Satanic Rites Of Dracula in 1973, a misjudged modern-day affair which the star himself has branded "fatuous, pointless (and] absurd".

Of the actor's estimated 290 big-screen appearances, perhaps The Wicker Man, also 1973, is most highly regarded. Named in 2004 by Total Film magazine as the sixth greatest British film of all time, the picture was hailed in a 1977 commemorative issue of Cinefantastique as "the Citizen Kane of horror movies". Following a misguided 2006 remake by Neil LaBute, the original director Robin Hardy is returning to the material for a 'reimagining' entitled Cowboys For Christ, currently in pre-production with Lee in the lead role of Sir Lachlan Morrison.

Away from horror, Lee's performance as Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) remains one of the finest cinematic representations of Bond villainy, while recent work in two other mega-franchises - Saruman in The Lord Of The Rings, Count Dooku in Star Wars - has brought his bottomless black eyes to the attention of a whole new generation of fans. Indeed, at the grand old age of 85, Lee's star continues to rise, with the actor showing no signs of slowing down in 2008.

Lee, who is descended from Italian nobility and spent his youth in England and Switzerland, fought for the Finnish forces in the Winter War of 1939-40, and served in the RAF during World War II. The actor is a step-cousin of the late James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and is the only cast member of The Lord Of The Rings to have met the source novel's author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973. As a child, Lee is reported to have met Rasputin's assassins, Prince Yusupoff and Dmitri Pavlovich.

He has acted alongside Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Mills, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Bette Davis, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. A 1978 hosting gig on Saturday Night Live revealed a hitherto untapped talent for comedy, a skill the actor has gone on to exploit in the likes of 1941 (for Steven Spielberg), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (for Joe Dante) and The Stupids (for John Landis).

In the early 1990s, I attempted to compile a complete Lee filmography for a Hammer fanzine. In the pre-Internet days, with only the aid of Belfast Central Library and a devastatingly incomplete VHS collection, I didn't get far. But I was finally afforded the opportunity to show my appreciation for the horror icon by sampling his unmistakable voice on Voodoo Doll, the opening track on the Dangerfields' debut album, Born To Rock.

Taken from my personal favourite Lee flick, Hammer's 1968 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, the Duc de Richleau's warning that, "The power of darkness is more than just a superstition - it is a living force, which can be tapped at any given moment of the night," is undoubtedly the highlight of our record.

Late last year, I attended the Hammer Horror Exhibition at its incongruous location of the visitor centre at the Falkirk Wheel. As most other visitors were content to discuss the wonders of the world's first and only rotating boatlift over tattie scones and a wee dram, my girlfriend and I were able to peruse the exhibits unmolested, she bagging the accompanying snap of myself clutching a classic Dracula wall-mount.

Today, despite never having been nominated for an Oscar or a BAFTA, Christopher Lee continues to work, and is, more than any other entertainer, responsible for promoting the British film industry worldwide and keeping millions of fanboys such as myself out of trouble.

If there is a screen ghoul more deserving of being referred to, tremblingly, as 'Sir' then I, for one, do not wish to meet him in a dark alley after midnight. I shall be reading the Queen's Birthday Honours List in June with expectant, bloodshot eyes.


Fanged Films

USA, 1969
Castle of Dracula / Dracula's Castle
Poland, 1967

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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Architecture & Morality, Part Three