He played everything from Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu, mystic Russian monks to Bond villains, Egyptian pharoahs to Transylvanian counts with a taste for Type 0. Regardless of the role, Christopher Lee always made for a welcome screen presence; whether he turned up as a force for good or as the Prince of Darkness himself, you knew you were in for a good time — a bloody good time, usually. Filmmakers ranging from Nicolas Ray (who cast him in his 1957 war-is-hell parable Bitter Victory) to Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese made excellent use of his imposing stature and a stentorian baritone that could suggest either authority or ancient evil. Who else could brag that they had taken on Gandalf, 007, Yoda and the Police Academy recruits?
In honor of the actor’s passing at the age of 93, we’re shouting out five Christopher Lee films that should be considered required viewing (or re-viewing) as folks mourn the loss of a legend. Several are obvious and a few are obscure, but all of these highlight why he’s considered a horror and fantasy movie icon.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Lee had been getting steady work as a bit player in the early 1950s, and you can often catch him as a scowling face in the background of costume dramas and boy’s-adventure romps. But once he hooked up with British production company Hammer Films and helped them raid the old Universal Horror lineup of famous monsters, he was forever associated with the horror genre; along with Peter Cushing, Lee would be a key player in the studio’s recycling of classic scary movies as garish, Karo-syrup–splashed matinee fodder. And though 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein, in which Lee played a truly grotesque version of the creature, was his breakthrough movie, it would be his first outing as the world’s best-known bloodsucker that made him a star. His Dracula is a much more animalistic vampire than Bela Lugosi’s elegant count, and he’d end up playing the role 10 times throughout his career. And when you watch Lee and a crucifix-brandishing Cushing tussle at the end of this lurid classic, you can see why these guys were Hammer’s MVPs.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Never mind the slightly cheesy aftertaste of this potboiler involving ritual sacrifices, black magic and attacks from Satanic tarantulas; this is a strong contender for Lee’s best Hammer film, and proof that the studio and its star didn’t need Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy et al. to conjure up great horror movies. This time, our star plays a good guy: Dennis Wheatley’s longtime pulp hero, the Duke De Richleau, who’s investigating some strange occurrences involving a friend’s son. Quicker than you can say “don’t step inside that pentagram,” occult worshippers rears their ugly heads, with Lee eventually going to head to horned-head with Satan himself. The actor would eventually get around to playing Lucifer in a 1973 TV movie called Poor Devil, costarring Sammy Davis Jr. (!), but here, the tall cool one proves he’s more than a match for the evil one.
Horror Express (1972)
Still, if you want a real underrated gem, look no further than this Spanish-British co-production based loosely — very loosely — on John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?,” also the inspiration for every version of The Thing. (This movie is not to be confused with the equally wonky-named Horror Hotel from 1960, in which the star plays a warlock and is also more than worth your time.) Having found a strange creature embedded in the ice, Lee brings his find aboard the Trans-Siberian Express and hopes to transport it back to London for further study. Once the monster gets loose and passengers start dropping like flies, he and Cushing try to track the beast down — at which point this seemingly grade-Z movie turns into something akin to a stellar X-Files episode. Its essential viewing. No, really.
The Wicker Man (1973)
That hair! Those tweed jackets! That ending!!! You know that things aren’t what they seem when police constable Edward Woodward shows up on a Scottish island, looking for a missing girl. And you can tell that Lee’s gentile Lord Summerisle isn’t telling the officer the whole truth about what goes on during the harvest season — if even he does freely admit that he’s involved in pagan rituals. Robin Hardy’s cult movie takes its time in getting around to revealing what’s really going on, and Lee’s slow-burn [ahem] performance helps keep you uneasy and creeped out before the climax finally drops the bomb. He’d already played outlandish monsters dozens of times; now he got to play a recognizably human one, and he was never scarier.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
With all due respect to the work as Scaramanga, the Bond villain of The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), and the Sith lord who boasted the second worst name of any Star Wars character (Count Dooku? Really?!?), Lee’s Saruman the White is the apex of his franchise-film villainy. He’d already spent a good deal of his later years gracing movies as a sort of horror/fantasy éminence grise, one whose presence alone was used as a shorthand for unspeakable evil or an easy punchline. But in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth trilogy, Lee’s corrupted wizard gets to go full bad-ass. His supernatural battle scene with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf (see above) isn’t a scrap thrown to an elderly actor — it’s a bona fide showstopping action set piece, and uses the star’s power to its fullest extent. This is what it looks like when gods fight.