The appeal of the villain

Quality script draws acting icon to B.C.

Published: Jun 15 2015, 01:01:am

October 28, 1975.
HIS BEARING IS PATRICIAN, with a touch of the vice-regal. His vocal tones are as finely tailored as his clothes. When Christopher Lee, 53, confers praise, it is not a matter to be taken lightly.
    At this moment, the London-based actor is conferring the highest possible praise on his current director, B.C.-born Tom Drake. Lee has  travelled halfway around the world to star in Drake's first feature film, The Keeper.
    Says the veteran villain: "I've never come across a story quite like this one."
    That "never" covers a lot of ground.
    Lee, an actor since 1947, has appeared in over 120 feature films and, according to Leslie Halliwell's authoritative Filmgoer's Companion, "seems to have made more movies than any other living actor." His experience ranges from Shakespeare to Sax Rohmer.
    One of the cinema's all-time great villains, Lee's characters seldom survive the final reel. An over-real screen duel with the swashbuckling Errol Flynn left Lee with a permanently crooked little finger. His memorable work in a series of high-quality horror movies earned him the title "Crown Prince of Terror."
    Lee comes by his aristocratic carriage quite legitimately, though. Through his mother, he is a Carandini, a member of one of Italy's oldest noble families, and a man able to trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne, first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
    During the phase of his career most closely associated with shock features, much was made of his familial connection to the Borgias. "But," he says, just to keep the record straight, "they were not the famous ones."
    Like Donald Pleasence (with whom he briefly shared the screen in the recent [1973] thriller Raw Meat), Lee prefers the challenge of villainy to heroic roles. Villains, he says, are "more interesting because, as a rule, they are better written."
    "There is a bit of a villain in everybody," he says. "There is a dark side to every character. In one way, perhaps it's a good thing that I get whatever Hyde there is in my makeup on the screen and not in reality."
    Few people have had as much opportunity for on-screen release as Lee. His rogue's gallery includes everything from monsters (Dr. Frankenstein's; Egypt's mummy; Count Dracula) to devils (Lucifer;  Mephistopheles), and from mad scientists (Fu Manchu) to religious fanatics (Rasputin).
    "They are very often people that you always had a sort of regard for.  You can play them in a much greater variety of ways," he suggests, listing "real villains, or amusing ones, or witty ones, or demented ones, or tormented and anguished ones, or sad ones, or lonely ones.
    "There is a far greater spectrum within which you can perform as a villain, and because they're usually more showy characters, they're the ones people remember most. They have an appeal, you know. They have an appeal."
    It was this appeal that drew Lee to the character of The Keeper. Its script, based on an idea by producer Don Wilson, was written, according to Drake, "with someone like Christopher Lee in mind." It then was forwarded to the actor in London.
    "The character," Lee says, "is extremely well-written. It has so many different sides to it that I said to my wife when I read it, 'here, this is good.' I gave it to her to read, and she said, 'yes, it's awfully good.'
    "I said, 'I'm going to do this. I'd like to do this very much'." Though his tone is reserved, Lee's praise for Drake's property is effusive. "The story itself appealed to me as a story. One of the major reasons, if not the major reason I accept a role is because of what the story is and what the story is about."
    Then he asks "how is the part? What is the part? Is it right for you? Do you want to play it? Does it fit in properly with the story? Does it appeal to you?" In the case of The Keeper, "the answer is 'yes' to all of those."
    A period thriller, The Keeper is set in Vancouver during the 1940s. "Basically the Keeper is, as his name suggests, the keeper of a place," Lee explains. "In this instance, it is a clinic, or a hospital.
    "It's not exactly an asylum, but it is a home. Call it a rest home for people who are not exactly normal." Lee's role? "I am the Keeper."
    The urbane actor refuses to give away any more of the plot, the better to heighten anticipation and suspense. "The story is an excellent one. I enjoyed reading it." he says.
    "It amused me. It has a certain demented quality to it," he adds cheerfully. "There are moments of very definite fear, rather than shock or terror. It is not in any way a horror movie, or anything remotely like that.
    "But there are moments of fear, moments of alarm, moments of despair, moments of torment. There are also moments of great farce; there are moments of comedy, and moments of wit and moments of quiet," he says.  
    "It is really something that is pretty all-embracing as a story. That's why it appealed to me — because it was an original idea, totally original."
    Accepting the role was a dramatic change of pace for Lee, and an act of faith in the Vancouver filmmakers. His most recent screen outings have been in multimillion-dollar projects, playing the title role in last year's James Bond adventure The Man with the Golden Gun [1974] and the malevolent Rochefort in The Three Musketeers  [1973] and The Four Musketeers [1974].
    By contrast, The Keeper is budgeted at a shoestring $135,000, 60 percent being put up by the Canadian Film Development Corporation.
    "The fact that I hadn't heard of the producer and hadn't heard of the director didn't worry me one bit," Lee says, "because I knew that people who were capable of writing a script of this kind are articulate, intelligent people and, though I don't know anything about them, I know this will work."
    Inevitably, our conversation comes around to Dracula. Over the years, dozens of actors have played the vampire count. Only two have made a lasting impact: Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.
    Just as Boris Karloff loved his "dear old monster," Lee has sincere concern for Dracula. Despite his identification with the character, he refuses to play the part again. "I stopped because I said 'this is no longer the great, romantic, heroic and extraordinary character'."
    Lee first wore the cape in 1958's Horror of Dracula, and has repeated the role in seven sequels. "I took the parts with increasing misgivings," he says. "Increasingly, I got more and more disillusioned, and I said 'no, I'm sorry, this is it.' Finished.
    Except, of course, if the story were to be told properly. A true epic, filmed as it was originally written, would be a real temptation. "Nobody," he says with an edge of anger in his voice, "has ever played the definitive Dracula. Nobody!"
    Lee would like to see it done right, and he would like to be the one to do it. "I once played in a film in Spain (1970's Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht / The Nights of Dracula, directed by Jess Franco) in which I did appear physically as an old man getting younger.
     "That was the definitive Dracula physically.
    "But nobody has made the film of (Bram) Stoker's book in which they use his lines, his words and his geographical areas," Lee says. "Nobody. Ever.
    "And I should know."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: As the above interview makes clear, Christopher Lee gave generously of his time and energy during the making of his 122nd feature film. Although many sources refer to 1977's Airport 77 as "his first American film," The Keeper was actually his first movie made in the Americas. At the time, Lee was nearly 30 years into a 68-year performing career. Established and bankable as an Anglo-European star, he still felt the need to expand his horizons. He was willing to visit a corner of the world not previously known as a film centre because he believed in a screenplay. Between our 1975 and 1980 conversations, he managed to make at least 20 more features, including one filmed in Toronto (1977's Starship Invasions) and the $10.2-million Bear Island shot on location in B.C. During that time, The Keeper disappeared without a trace. 
       Sunday, June 8, 1980.

CALL IT THE MYSTERY of the missing movie. Christopher Lee, the only actor to have played both Sherlock Holmes (in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace; 1962) and the famous detective's brother Mycroft (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; 1970) has no idea what happened to The Keeper.
    According to Leslie Halliwell, author of The Filmgoer's Companion, Lee "seems to have made more movies than any other living actor." One of those movies was filmed in Vancouver in 1975.
    The picture was called The Keeper. Its original screenplay, based on a story by David Curnick and Donald Wilson, was written by Tom Drake, "with someone like Christopher Lee in mind." A copy was sent to Lee in London, and the much-in-demand actor agreed to do their picture.
    It was a little movie. Drake directed it on a $135,000 budget, 60 percent of which came from the federal government's Canadian Film Development Corporation.
    After Lee had returned  to London, "I received a letter from British Equity, passing along a letter from Canadian Equity, advising me not to do the picture.
     'They were concerned because it was a completely non-union project."
    The film, one that had appealed to Lee "because it was an original idea, totally original," has never been released. "An actor never goes into a picture with the knowledge that it's going to be a disaster," he said.
     "I always hope for the best, and work to do my best for the producers."
    The simple secret of Lee's longevity in the international film business is his professionalism. An actor whose roles have ranged from Shakespeare to Sax Rohmer, he plays every part as if it were the most important in his career.
    British-born, Lee is probably best known as Count Dracula, a part he's played in at least eight films. Although he hung up his cape in 1971,  his performances were so memorable that his name has become synonymous with that of the Transylvanian vampire.
    Recently, with such actors as George Hamilton and Frank Langella working hard to put their marks on the Dracula role, Lee's own versatility has been more apparent.
    Within the last 18 months, he's been seen in a good half dozen features, among them comedies such as 1941 [1979] and Serial [1980], the fantasy Arabian Adventure [1979], the martial arts dramas Jaguar Lives! [1979] and The Silent Flute [1978] and the action-adventure film Caravans [1978].
     In the current Bear Island [1980] he plays a Polish meteorologist, part of a research team in the high arctic.  
    Something that Lee would like to do on screen is sing. He'll get his chance to do that if Australian composer Simon Heath can find the financing for Mephistopheles, a modern musical version of the Faust legend.
    Like the The Keeper, Mephistopheles seems to have been created with Lee in mind. Several years ago, Heath visited Lee in London with his libretto, and the actor is committed to the project, should it ever happen.
    Lee would sing the title role. "Mephistopheles is a prince of hell," Lee says. "He's not the devil, though. That's Satan."
    In support of the project, Lee has recorded one of the show's numbers, a disco-style song called Paradise, due to be released soon as a 45-rpm single. On the flip side Lee performs a new arrangement of the Vaughn Monroe standard, Ghost Riders in the Sky.
    "It's a question of financing," says Lee. "If there were a lot of successful musicals around, there'd be no difficulty. Unfortunately, there have been too many expensive disasters."
    Even so, Lee himself has no difficulty finding work. Now that his Canadian tour promoting Bear Island is finished, he's off to Italy. There he'll join Franco Nero and Anthony Quinn in the cast of The Salamander, a screen adaptation of the Morris West suspense novel.
     "l'm never bored," Lee says.

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Ever gracious, Christopher Lee recalled The Keeper more in sorrow than in anger. Rather than heap scorn on filmmakers who had been unable to find distribution for their finished product, he offered only a wistful "I always hope for the best" as his final comment on the subject. Although I can find no record of the 1976 picture ever having a theatrical release, it appears to have made it to television in the mid-1980s, with a 1987 release on videotape. In the years since, The Keeper has acquired something of a cult following. Lee's hoped-for Mephistopheles collaboration with Simon Heath did not come to pass, although his enthusiasm for music later found expression in 1983's The Return of Captain Invincible. A superhero rock-musical, it starred Lee as a super-villain who performs a song-and-dance number written by Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien. Though he was fluent in at least five languages, the word "retirement" was unknown to Lee in any of them. He made his mark on 21st-century cinema with starring roles in five Lord of the Rings/Hobbit  features and two Star Wars sequels. At the same time, he was becoming a Heavy Metal performer in a parallel career as a vocalist that earned him the Spirit of Metal Award at the 2010 MetalHammer Golden Gods ceremonies in London. With more than 200 feature films to his credit, Sir Christopher Frank Caradini Lee died eight days ago (June 7, 2015) at the age of 93.