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Christopher Lee: Remembering An Elegant Master of the Macabre

I met Christopher Lee only once, over dinner at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival, where he was due to receive a lifetime achievement award. But even one night with Lee, who died June 7, was something to treasure. At 91, he was a consummate raconteur, spinning tales from a 60-year career in which he had become the very embodiment of the sci-fi, horror and fantasy movies that seep into little boys’ brains and turn them into Tim Burton, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson or George Lucas. At one point, our conversation turned to the subject of “Star Wars,” and the climactic lightsaber battle between Lee’s Count Dooku and the diminutive Yoda in 2002’s “Attack of the Clones,” made when Lee was a mere 80. “I did all of my own dueling in that scene!” Lee exclaimed, adding that he could be found in the Guinness Book of Records as the actor with the most on-screen swordfights.

Was there not also a Guinness category for actor most responsible for conjuring nightmares in the minds of impressionable children? For surely, that is how he entered so many of our lives, as Frankenstein or Dracula or a resurrected mummy in the series of Hammer Studios horror films that kept the actor in steady employ throughout the ’50s and ’60s (and remained staples of independent television stations’ “creature feature” broadcasts well into the ’80s). Lee complained that he was underutilized in many of those films, but then, Lee was the sort of actor whose presence hung in the air even when he wasn’t onscreen, and who, when he was, literally (at 6-foot-5) and figuratively towered over everything around him.

Seeing “The Mummy” (1959) at an impressionable age, at the Tampa Museum of Art (where it was screened, curiously, as part of an exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts), I recall having to be escorted from the theater when Lee’s vengeful Kharis breaks into the study of the archaeologist (Peter Cushing, the actor’s frequent onscreen adversary and real-life best friend) who has unwittingly brought him back to life. But by the time I caught up with “Horror of Dracula” (1958), I happily watched all the way through to those final moments where Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing throws open the tall, velvet curtains and streaking sunlight falls onto Lee’s horrified Count, who lets out an unforgettable primal shriek as his body turns to ash — still one of the coolest special effects ever.

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Lee went on to play Dracula another eight times, but how remarkable that he also found himself pitted against gremlins, Jedi, hobbits and even James Bond in a career that stretched from a bit part in the 1948 gothic romance “Corridor of Mirrors” all the way to last fall’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”

In most of those movies, Lee was up to no good, but with that long, lean frame and crisp English-schoolboy diction, he made menace seem positively magisterial. Then, in 2011, he was the kindly bookshop owner in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” — a movie about the timeless power of cinema, where Lee’s iconography loomed larger than his relatively small role. Indeed, it seemed that the actor, like cinema itself, might well go on forever, which is why his death, even at 93, still feels like a shock.

So go home tonight, turn out the lights, fire up one of Lee’s sinister classics, and raise a glass to this master of the macabre as he once again sends an incomparable shiver up your spine.

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