Armagideon Time

In the summer of 1993, I got a part-time job working at the reserve desk of the campus library. It was a great gig, as the place was nearly dead during the intersession, and I spent much of my shift poring over some of the amazing shit that had ended up in the place’s reference collection.

For some weird (likely budgetary) reason the school had amassed a large number of popcult texts from the early 1980s — collected volumes of film reviews, an annotated bibliography of nuclear war fiction, a copy of Who’s New Wave in Music, and several dense historical directories of horror films.

The latter dovetailed nicely with my slow transition away from punk rock and into a postpunk/artgloom phase. I was twenty-one, my spiky locks had been getting limper with each shellacking, and the hints at how much better I looked in less affected fashions from Maura were getting harder to ignore. Truth is, I’d been playing the punk game since high school and it would’ve been time to move on even if I hadn’t felt forced by the idiocy of the alterna-splosion crowd.

Artgloom was a handy out — all the pretentiousness of punk but with a sardonic sense of wit that came so naturally to me. It also reflected my changing tastes in music, shifting from anarcho-angst into the minimalist/electronic spookhouse sounds of Alien Sex Fiend, Bauhaus, and ever other act to grace a Cleopatra Records compilation. I was never truly goth, but haunted the same chilly byways as that scene did, and a rekindled interest in horror and other “cult” films was a huge part of that.

Over the course eight weeks, I’d mapped out every video rental place with a decent selection of relevant videos in the area — City Video (Newbury Street and Porter Square), Tower Records (Mass Ave), Videosmith (Central Square), and even the Blockbuster in Woburn Center. Mike Weldon’s Psychotronic Guide was my bible, stuffed with clippings and index cards listing crucial titles to search for.

The top of the must-see list was populated by the AIP’s Corman/Price Poe cycle and Hammer’s stable of horror flicks, lush and lurid Technicolor spectacles which pushed forward by glancing backwards. As much as I adored (as still adore) Vincent Price’s performances, the advantage went to the Hammer flicks, where the production, acting, and attention to period detail went light years beyond domestically manufactured drive-in fare. No matter how silly the franchises became how familiar the Bray House sets felt with each new installment, there was an unmistakable level of class there…even if it was the type eked from classically trained actors chewing scenery for a paycheck.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, man, along with Michael Gough, Andrew Kier, Barbara Shelley, and a host of other lesser-known players did miraculous things with even the slightest stuff. (And when the material was legitimately good, the results were absolutely amazing.

I love the Hammer horror films, but I adore the studio’s period adventure films from that era even more — overwrought cinematic bodice-rippers featuring mad monks, pirates, barbarian queens, knights, and outlaws. Again, the material tended to be iffy (or, in the case of She, racially problematic as fuck), but the performances by Lee and/or Cushing were always top-notch in spite of it. If they were in it for a paycheck, they didn’t let it show in the least…well, apart from a few unfortunate exceptions.

Vincent Price and Peter Cushing both died during the height of my cult movie enthusiasm, and their passing broke my heart. Christopher Lee has now joined them. His career was as long as it was enviably illustrious. Few actors (apart from Price and Cushing) were pull off as compelling an aura of urbane menace as he did, or elevate roles that otherwise would have collapsed into camera-mugging frivolity.

He was a cinematic icon, the final survivor of a pantheon of such icons. We shall never see their like again.

5 Responses to “The last of the elder horror gods”

  1. Zeno

    I was fortunate enough to have quite a bit of the Hammer catalog in the rotation of my regional late-night horror host program circa 1977, and for this reason Christopher Lee will always be my go-to choice for the quintessential Dracula. Bela Lugosi may have defined the image, but Sir Christopher filled it…all 6’5″ of him.

  2. sallyp

    Man, a whole lot of my favorite actors and actresses are dropping dead, and it’s just not FAIR! But yes…Christopher Lee was amazing in every way, and will be greatly missed.

  3. Mike Loughlin

    As a kid I loved the Universal movies but was late to the Hammer films because a still picture of Christopher Lee with fake blood dripping down the corners of his mouth scared the hell out of me. Eventually (after exhausting the local video stores’ supply of older monster movies) I gave them a try… and Christopher Lee scared the hell out of me. As Zeno said, he owned the part of Dracula.

    (Co-owned at least, because Lugosi will always be Dracula, but Lee was a much better performer and managed to portray the character entirely differently)

    I’m glad Christopher Lee lived long enough to see his greatness acknowledged, even if (I suspect) he was at least semi-dismissive of most of the material he was given. I loved his performance in The Wicker Man. It’s amazing how he could turn smugness into menace. Hell, he was great in the ’90s & ’00s extended cameos and cgi-dominated crap that I hope paid extremely well.

  4. Prankster

    To my shame I still haven’t seen the Quatermass movies–I’m not even sure which is the first one. They were hard to track down via my usual routes growing up. Are any of them on a streaming service?

  5. snarkout

    @Mike Loughlin — Lee might have felt some contempt for some of his material, but I think that would mostly be because the material was bad, not because of contempt for the genre. He was actually quite a fan of horror literature, and one of his best Hammer performances (The Devil Rides Out) was adapted from a Dennis Wheatley book he pitched to the studio.

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