Christopher Lee’s Best Movie

I was genuinely saddened to learn that Christopher Lee died last Sunday. For some of us, he wasn’t just great talent, but an iconic figure from our childhood. I was a Monster Kid of the 1970s: raised on Saturday matinees, the 4:30 movie, Chiller Theatre on channel 11 (that hand!), and Famous Monsters of Filmland. I didn’t do sports and wasn’t much of a student. I did Karloff and Chaney and Cushing and Lee.

And he was the last. They’re all gone now. Lugosi and Chaney, before I was born. Then Uncle Boris, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr, Peter Cushing, Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, all of them. And now the towering legend with the giant voice and those amazing eyes joins them.

house-of-the-long-shadows-group-picture

Reunion time?

Christopher Lee appeared in a couple hundred movies. I’ve sought them out and maybe seen less than half. A great many of them were crap, a number of them were quite good, and some were classics.

There are a few titles that fans would place at the top of their lists: The Wicker Man, of course. Horror of Dracula. Curse of Frankenstein. Lord of the Rings. Maybe Hound of the Baskervilles or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies.

But one film many of fans, myself included, would single out as their favorite is The Devil Rides Out (1967), directed by Terence Fisher from a screenplay by Richard Matheson.

This was a pet project of Lee’s, and he had to push Hammer to get it done. Lee was tired of the pop-up scares of Dracula movies. He wanted to depict real evil and Satanism in a serious way. He wanted to show that the occult was dangerous, and treat it with intelligence. I just rewatched this film a week ago with the commentary track on, and was struck by how knowledgeable he was about the subject, and how much the film meant to him.

Jesus wins.

Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, the film stars Lee as Nicolas, the Duc de Richleau, a character who appeared in many other novels by Wheatley. Nicolas and Rex Van Ryn learn that a young friend, Simon, is being drawn into Satanism by a charismatic Aleister Crowley type played by Charles Gray. (Both Gray and Lee later played Bond villains.)

The film is notable for its accuracy and its sober depiction of occult practices and their dangers. Even more notable is its strong Christian message. Over and over, either God or Jesus is used to thwart evil. The final triumph (it’s not like I’m spoiling things here) is accomplished by the overwhelming power of the cross. Even when the good guys use an incantation, it hearkens back to Solomon. (In esoteric tradition, Solomon was able to control and cast out demons.)

A lot of horror has a winking quality: the audience understands this is a lark. The Devil Rides Out plays it straight down the line, and it’s stronger for it.

Lee clearly believe in the devil and the power of God to thwart him, and was adamant about the dangers of trifling with the occult, as he shows in this clip.

Lee himself was Anglo-Catholic. His noble blood line was traced back to Charlemagne, and I believe that he had a pope somewhere in his family tree. He was the one of the last men of a dying generation. He saw evil up close in the war, and he knew the devil’s power.

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Lee’s autobiography is great fun.

The Devil Rides Out is out of print on DVD, but you get all 11 of the original Wheatley occult novels in one Kindle collection

Get all 11 of the original Wheatley occult novels in one Kindle collection. Well-researched and good fun.

Out of print and expensive. Even when I needed money I wouldn't sell this one.

Out of print and expensive. Even when I needed money I wouldn’t sell this one.

ISIS Is Destroying Ancient Palmyra

This is the Lion of Al-Lat:

palmyra-god-lion

It stood at the entrance the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, and dated to the First or Second Century. It was a product of the great Palmyran civilization, which had a brief but prosperous glory while the Roman Empire was beginning its decline. It was built in honor of  Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic goddess.

It no longer exists.

ISIS has taken over Palmyra, which has a rich cultural heritage, and begun a systematic destruction of all “idols.” Eyewitnesses have described the destruction of the lion with construction equipment, as well as the smashing of cultural treasures in the museum.

The ISIS forces have promised locals that they will not destroy mere ruins, only “idols.” No one believes them.

The Great Colonnade, Palmyra

The Great Colonnade, Palmyra

Finding That Safe Place in the Imagination, With General Urko and Dinosaurs

On Monday, Kyle Cupp asked his Mindless Monday Question: What toys from your childhood do you most wish you had with you today? Elizabeth Scalia replied with Answering Kyle Cupp With A Plastic Trumpet and a Scream.

I’m  answering with this:

apes

If you recognize this as General Urko from Planet of the Apes, then you are probably a male in his 40s and remember Ape-mania. I don’t know what happened to Urko or the other doll I had (Cornelius/Galen, who was played, of course, by the incomparable Roddy McDowall) but they were treasures. I didn’t even mind Urko’s bright purple tights because he had that cool plastic helmet and gauntlet.

I do still have a few toys from my childhood. These were my favorite:

2015-01-27 14.15.05The army guys belonged to my son, and are provided for scale. It’s the anachronistic collection of dinosaurs (including a caveman and a woolly mammoth, just because) that got the heaviest workout, and which I’ve kept these 40+ years.

The set came with mountains and trees and I’d play out scenes for hour with my own army guys and other random toys and figures. It was part of the grand parade that fired my young imagination: Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Lost World, Ray Harryhausen, King Kong, In Search Of, Twilight Zone, Trek, King Tut, dinosaurs, monsters, all the wild worlds of the 4:30 movie, comics (Swamp Thing, House of Secrets, Creepy, Hulk, Batman, Superman, etc), pulps, and old time radio.

And you know what? I still love it all. As much I enjoy digging deeply into theology and history and great literature, I’ve never lost the bug for the great Burroughs-style works of pure imagination and grand adventure. There’s real beauty in them: the beauty of little boys who grew up to be men with fierce creative talents, but never lost that boyish sense of wonder and adventure.

Is it merely empty nostalgia?

I don’t think so, though I probably wouldn’t recognize it if it was. I see these things for what they were: a way for a sad and lonely kid to flee to a safe place that also fired his imagination. I understand that this safe place, formed in those pivotal childhood years, is built of stone and mortar with foundations laid right on the bedrock of my psyche.

There’s always going to be a place in my mind where Col. Steve Austin is a man barely alive but gentlemen we can rebuild him because we have the technology, where Kirk and Spock and McCoy are beaming down to a planet, where Doug McClure fights dinosaurs and Boris Karloff is a sad and misunderstood monster.

And I’ll still return to that place, like some people return to comfort food or certain music. When I was little, sometimes it was my only safe place. It doesn’t serve that purpose any more, but it’s still somewhere I like–and maybe even need–to visit from time to time.

 

 

St. Joan vs. Boris Karloff

Karloff in "The Lark"

Karloff in “The Lark”

I’ve loved the classic Universal monster movies since I was a kid in the 1970s. That was the decade of the “Monster Kids,” who became fans thanks to a combination of TV showings of classic films, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein magazines, and endless parodies of the characters made famous by Karloff, Lugosi, the Chaneys, and others.Lark_2.inline vertical

Karloff was always my favorite, and not just for his roles. By the time of the monster boom, we had an image of him as a kind of gentle old uncle hosting programs like Thriller and telling stories on record albums and the occasional cartoon. To this day, Karloff films are still my go-to viewing to cheer me up, which I guess is pretty perverse. The pathos and humanity he brought to his characters gave me an escape from dark times, and they still do. I’ve been delighted to be able to share the classic films with my kids and have them become fans too.

I have quite a few monster sites, blogs, and pages in my feeds, and one thing that crops up again and again are picture of Uncle Boris sipping tea. Tumblr is kind of a mystery to me, so I thought I’d toss up some of these pictures and other Universal and classic monsterabilia for a lark at a site called Boris Karloff Drinks Tea because why the heck not.

Today’s shot has some Catholic overlap: it’s Karloff in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, a play about St. Joan. He originated the role of Pierre Cauchon, the French bishop and English partisan who persecuted St. Joan of Arc (played by Julie Harris). The full text of the play is here. You can watch it here. Karloff was nominated for a Tony for the performance.

lark