Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Christopher Lee's Own Dracula

Throughout history, man has invented monsters as a way of explaining away the evil deeds that men do. A monster is the fabricated scapegoat for a deeply embedded sadism that has always endured humanity, because without the monster, man must face the reality that man himself is evil. In a world once weighed down heavily by a cross, the monster was used as fodder for clerical and political imperialism, where the cross around one's neck could serve as their only protection against unknown and malicious forces. Almost every religion has its own form of Satan, a demonic entity whose primary goal is to devour or corrupt, and without that demon there would be no urgency for god's protection, there would be no need to wear your cross around your neck. The French knight Gilles de Rais' occultism was highlighted when it was revealed that he was a child killer.The Irish were portrayed as cannibalistic pagans by the poet, Edmund Spenser, as a means to justify an English military presence. As word traveled of witchcraft in Massachusetts in the latter 1600s, innocent women were tortured and executed as brides of Satan. Man has always constructed the face of an evil that must be banished for the sake of piety, but what happens when the face looking back is that of a man's?

Count Dracula encompasses all that the pious fear and do not understand. He is hedonistic, murderous, calculating, but most of all he is in the image of man. Excavate even deeper and you'll find that Dracula is not only shaped as a man, but he is also an aristocrat, a man with power and influence, the very Antichrist informed by the New Testament. He isn't the violent drunkard or the lunatic, to endow such illnesses on Count Dracula would be to rationalize his behaviour. Though undead, Dracula embodies the lusts of the living. He is very much in control of his actions, he isn't the product of evil because it is he who produces it. Frankenstein's monster was the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong, the werewolf is afflicted with lycanthropy, and even Lucifer suffered a fall from grace. No such pretext can be offered up for Dracula, he is simply evil of his own accord. He is his own master, a libertine, and a symbol of nihilism. Once again, when we speak about Count Dracula, we are also speaking about humanity. We're talking about rapists, murderers, dictators, we're talking about submission and domination. Bram Stoker's Dracula is an evocation of primitive man wrapped from head to foot in black.

With a villain as magnetizing as Dracula, it didn't take very long for the infant but booming film industry to swipe him up and make use of the perhaps the very schema for the modern day bad guy. Universal studios are regarded as the very first company to produce a film based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the role of the the count was filled by the legendary Bela Lugosi, an actor who many regard as the transcendent Dracula. However, it is also Bela Lugsoi's Dracula that is most parodied and punctured, with characters like  Sesame Street's The Count and innumerable horror themed porno flicks slowly chipping away at the character and what he really is. That's another thing man tends to do, he spoofs away his fear and discomfort, and thus allows for the bastardization of horror. Bela Lugosi's role in 1933's Dracula would become the very first real visual we were given of Dracula (Unless you regard Nosferatu's Count Orlock as a Dracula film) and his portrayal of the vampiric count has had a powerful and static presence throughout pop-culture. Though, once again, as pop-culture tends to do, Lugosi' Dracula was demystified and grated down in order to be assimilated into said pop-culture of the time. When you think of that throaty laugh and collared cape, the stout face of Bela Lugosi comes to mind and it is his Dracula that we play with in our cartoons and Halloween costumes. It is this Dracula that the world forgot to fear. The same cannot be said for the next Dracula, the Dracula that couldn't be mulled for a generation of drive-in movies and late night television specials. This Count Dracula made us reassess our image of the character. You couldn't laugh and point at the silly old man with fake fangs hiding behind his cape. In fact, this character was nothing to laugh at. This new Dracula was Christopher Lee.

From the beginning, Lee wanted to portray Dracula as closely to the blueprints laid out by Bram Stoker, he did however put far more into the character than any other actor that has played the count since. Lee's Dracula was sterile and detached, a man with a severe lack of social skills but who possessed the ability to charm and persuade through subtle means, and failing that, good old fashioned mind-control. He was the true aristocrat and as such, he held himself in a way that even his posture suggested authority. Lee's gaunt, sharp features and frigid eyes placed him as closer to that of a walking corpse than of Lugosi, whose round face shaped an arguably more benign vampire. Christopher Lee comes from a school of acting that accentuates silence and vacancy as powerful tools for performance, so for Lee's Dracula, much of his dialogue isn't spoken, but seen. This was a Dracula that lived as a vegetable, a man who rarely uses words, and so Lee's profound ability to communicate using only facial expressions allowed for him to skip from sober and attentive to red-eyed and furious within a moment's time. This also added something to the character that many overlook when discussing the Hammer Horror Dracula films; Lee made Dracula bipolar.

In the Hammer Horror films, Lee's presence served more to the atmosphere of the film than to the plot. These films were driven by the other main cast members (most notably Peter Cushing) whereas Dracula was something of a landscape, an iconic image, something to look at in awe. Christopher Lee cutting a nefarious figure and remaining completely silent, a black cape casting him like a shadow atop the staircase of Castle Dracula; that is atmosphere, that is what Lee gave to the character. A ghostly presence. A characteristic that Stoker put much effort into sustaining during the writing process, and a characteristic that Lee, ever the astute one, made sure to assume throughout his time as the count. His portrayal of the character is made only more stringent by his screen-time. In a Hammer film, we never see too much of Dracula, we see just enough. We are not exposed to him from the first scene to the last, we are removed from the evils of Dracula many times throughout these films so that there is a weight added to Lee's performance when he finally does arrive on scene. When we are constantly exposed to a character in film (or any expression of art, really), our reactions to their presence become weathered and thus the character loses weight. That has never been the case with Lee's Dracula, he arrives, engages, and leaves, we then await his return.

Christopher Lee's own Dracula is distinct from others not because of his reputation as an actor, but because he knows that the face men really fear is their own. As Dracula, Lee rarely speaks, because all he has to do is occupy space in order to create tension. Whereas Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) was debased as a rapist as a means to justify his death, Dracula requires no such extreme character modifiers, he is already everything the world is afraid of; a man with power and sadism. There was not and is not a single actor who could have played the role of Dracula as effectively as Christopher Lee did. There has not been an actor since who has embedded themselves so deeply into the character as Christopher Lee did. Though he became disillusioned with the direction the character was going in during the latter years of his career as Dracula under the Hammer banner, he still reinvented the character over and over again, each Dracula becoming more evil, more man, than the last.

"The Devil Has Won"

R.I.P. PETER CUSHING (1913 - 1944)

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