House Haunting with Christopher Lee

Christopher-Lee-HauntLast week, the world lost a horror legend. On June 7, 2015 Sir Christopher Lee passed away. I first became aware of him at the turn of the millennium through movies such as The Star Wars Prequels and The Lord of the Rings series. It wasn’t until later that I discovered his long spanning career in the horror film industry, particularly with Hammer Films, a London based film-production company. Forgive me for this late discovery of his full resume. I can try and blame it on my age. After all, I didn’t happen upon this earth until 10 + years after he made his most famous horror movies of the late 1950’s. But this excuse is lame, since I grew up watching older horror movies (i.e. Son of Svengoolie). I should have known better.

For instance, I still have not seen Horror of Dracula, which is perhaps his best known horror flick. I mean to correct this soon. Very soon! The aristocratic gentleman that he was– it seems as if he was born to play the blood-sucking count. However, in keeping up with the theme of this blog, I decided to watch three of his films that loosely contribute to the haunted house genre. I say loosely because the houses in these films are not haunted by ghosts or other supernatural entities. Rather they are mansions, castles, etc. where grisly events occurred. Nevertheless, they contain several features common in haunted house lore: secret passages and rooms, long and winding staircases, knight’s armors, huge 18th century portraits and eccentric custodial masters.

These films – they are what they are – low budget, dated pieces where the acting and writing are somewhat subpar. And yet, I enjoyed Sir Lee’s performances in all three films

What follows are mainly descriptions of the films, not necessarily reviews. Old low budget horror movies – you love em’ or hate em, and not much can change a person’s opinion. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle; sometimes they make me cringe, sometimes laugh (mostly at scenes not meant to be funny), but they always seem to capture my interest. I usually find something to like about these old movies. And I’m gonna tell ya about the stuff I like in these three movies! Here I go!

The House that Dripped Blood – 1971

Four short stories about a series of tenants that experience chilling misfortunes while staying at the house. The first tenants are a horror writer and his wife. The writer is working on a novel about a countryside strangler that has escaped from the asylum. The problem for the writer is that not only has the villain escaped from the asylum, but he has managed to free himself from the confines of the story and break into the real world. The writer sees him hiding and creeping around the house

The next tenant in another Hammer Horror favorite. Peter Cushing stars as a wealthy man who desires to retire to this house and live out the rest of his life gardening, reading and listening to music. However he becomes obsessed with an exhibit at a museum of haunted horrors. It is the made up head of a woman. She looks eerily like someone from Cushing’s past.

It is the third story that features Christopher Lee – the man of the hour! He moves into the house with a young daughter. He is a strict authoritarian – he doesn’t allow her to play with toys, she is prohibited from attending school (she is privately taught), and he doesn’t want her to be around fire.

The fourth and final story features a movie actor who turns into a vampire whenever he dons a black cloak that he purchased at a novelty store.

At the end, a narrator tells the audience how the house itself ties all these stories together. Personally, his explanation doesn’t work for me. Oh well. That’s how it goes. Personally I like the story with Lee the best. Is this because I watched this film with the specific intent of looking out for his talents? Maybe. But a mysterious fireplace and this voodoo doll and a creepy little girl hold my attention as well.

Curse of the Crimson Altar – 1968

Mark Eden stars as Robert Manning, a man whose brother has gone missing. His last known whereabouts were at a large house in the country. The man of the house is Morely, played brilliantly by Christopher Lee!   Manning shows up, searching for his brother. Morely says that he has never met his brother but he offers Manning a room in his humongous abode while he spends the next few days investigating the disappearance of his brother in the nearby village.

Tales of ancient witchcraft are amidst in the town – and they tie in to Morely’s heritage, as well as Mannings. There is a cemetery on the grounds of the house. There is a secret passageway into the house that leads to a room filled with pagan sacrificial paraphernalia – an altar, ancient knives, masks of goats and sheep. And there is the witch we see now and then. Her body is painted green. In fact, she looks as if she belongs on a Star Trek set kissing Captain Kirk.

Some interesting tidbits of this film – It also stars Boris Karloff.This is one of his final films. The chemistry between Karloff and Lee is excellent. They cue off each other well.  It is based off of a H.P. Lovecraft short story called The Dreams in the Witch House

Castle of the Living Dead – 1964

An Italian film dubbed in English, Christopher Lee stars as Count Drago, the man of the castle, who has a penchant for mummifying and embalming living things so that they might then “live forever”. His obsession with this taxidermy starts with animals and then, of course, he moves on to humans. He even has a room where a whole bunch of people are forever frozen; the inanimate guests of his eternal party! In this film, Drago invites a troupe of entertainers to his castle so that they may entertain him with their show. Just kidding! He wants to mummify them.

This film is probably the most “so-so” of the three. One would think a castle with the living dead would have zombies or even vampires. But no, just mummified, immobile beings. They don’t seem to be the “living” dead to me – just “dead” dead.

Anyway, the film features an old drone and she is a riot! She always speaks in a creaky voice, and always with rhyme –

“Beware of the castle over there,

Proceed cautiously if you must dare”

That’s not an actual line from the film, but it’s close enough. But the thing is, this witch is played by, of all people, Donald Sutherland!  With a black cloak draped around his body and most of his face, his identity is hidden. However, he also place a dim-witted policeman. But is role as the hag is more interesting.

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Are these three the best horror films of Christopher Lee? Probably not. Yet, he never ceases to captivate. These were the films that I could find that most resembled the haunted house genre. Know of any other “Haunted House” Lee films? Let me know. I would be glad to check them out.

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