Recently Rated Movies: Catching Up with Christopher Lee (the actor, not my brother…) Pt. 2

Of the Christopher Lee films I have seen to this point, the one area in which I hardly need delve are his most famous and popular roles. It has been decades since I first saw his Hammer Draculas and his turn as Frankenstein’s Monster, his villainous appearances in Bond and Three Musketeers films, and his Fu Manchu series countless times, and every role is etched in my memory. His later appearances in major modern epic series (LOTR, Star Wars) are also to be counted in this group, even if I hold little fondness for the last three Star Wars entries. I have also seen many of his supporting roles in films such as Serial (1980, of which I am still fond), a variety of turns alongside his old chum Peter Cushing in non-Hammer horror flicks, and his odd cameo in The Magic Christian (as a vampire waiter on an ocean liner). 

The point is that I am already well-versed in his major roles. In reviewing his oeuvre over the past couple of weeks and recalling his movies that I have actually seen to this point, there have been few thus far (except for some of the horror ones and The Magic Christian, which is certainly memorable but actually not very good) that I would describe as resting near even the lower rungs of the higher echelon of filmmaking.

But, as I make my way through his unseen flicks, I am discovering that there are plenty of near misses. As I recounted the other day, Hannie Caulder turned out to be a pretty good revenge western, if not great. Then I ran into three films which are ever so close to being good solid films, but just narrowly miss the mark for me. I am fairly certain that if I saw any of these three as a teenager or young adult, they would probably rank higher up in my memory, but I only just saw them in the past week. All three warrant follow-up viewings, and I will leave it to those moments to determine whether they move up or down in my rankings. So while I currently have assigned all three my middle of the road “5” rating, they were all worthy of my time and eventual, almost assured revisitation.

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967) [aka The Snake Pit and the Pendulum; Torture Chamber; Castle of the Walking Dead; Blood of the Virgins; The Blood Demon; and many, many more…]
Dir: Harald Reinl
TC4P Rating: 5

One of the first hurdles for any horror film is evoking and maintaining a haunting atmosphere. This film has atmosphere in spades, as long as the soundtrack doesn’t emit a single musical note. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is set in the same type of fairytale, Germanic burg as many of the more famous Hammer selections like Frankenstein Created Woman, and like those films, the fairytale backdrop is betrayed by a lurid series of events that lead to even more chaos. 

Christopher Lee plays Count Regula (which is what I would think Dracula would be if he devoured more fiber), and he is drawn and quartered in the beginning of the film for draining the blood from twelve virgins to give him immortality. (He fails because he had not gotten to the 13th victim.) He naturally swears vengeance before his body parts are ripped asunder, and sure enough, decades later, the script gives him the chance. Based partly on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (at least, the sections involving both a pit and a pendulum), Torture Chamber has a wonderfully creepy middle section where the protagonists (including post-Weissmuller Tarzan, Lex Barker) travel through a dark forest with bodies and limbs hanging from the trees all around them. All of the later scenes of Lee torturing his foes are also memorably committed to film, and I certainly enjoyed how much fun the film seemed to be having with its absolute depravity. 

In fact, my one and only real gripe with the film is the soundtrack, which for much of the running time seems too comic and buoyant for the storyline. However, it does have moments where it matches appropriately, so my initial statement regarding the emittance of a single note was merely to provoke. In fact, I quite enjoy the score all the way through, even the absurd parts. I just feel that at certain moments in the film, the score doesn't seem to belong. Overall, though, this is a fine, new addition to my regular Halloween viewing list, goofy and inconsistent music regardless. 

The Bloody Judge (1970) [aka Night of the Blood Monster; Trial of the Witches; and many more...]
Dir: Jesús Franco
TC4P Rating: 5

I not only think that the British tradition of having wigs lodged atop the heads of their judges and lawyers is quaint and rather silly in these modern times (I will put on the brakes before calling it stupid, but.. yeah...), the thought of them actually makes me a bit physically ill. Much in the way that I used to be so repelled by early ‘70s fashion in films (even though I grew up in that time) that I couldn’t watch certain films without a feeling of nauseousness, the courtroom attire of England does the same thing to me when I see it in a movie or on TV. I even want to wretch at the very thought of it, and I really don’t know why. Which is precisely the reason I have always put off viewing The Bloody Judge for eons. Almost always available for me to view, I have never been able to get past the image of Christopher Lee topped off with one of those ridiculous wigs on his noggin, no matter how enjoyably maniacal he was likely to behave in the film.

Well, consider me wrong. I should have watched The Bloody Judge a long time ago. Not that it is any great shakes as a “normal" film, but as a gonzo piece of shock horror, this is a pretty lowdown and dirty but gorgeously shot flick with some nasty torture scenes and bountiful nudity throughout. What you don’t get is the loopiness and lack of narrative drive inherent in many of director Jesús “Jess" Franco’s soft-core “masterpieces” (I am rather fond of some of those loopier films, especially Vampyros Lesbos). 

But what you do get from the other Franco films is the lovely Maria Rohm, who also co-starred with Christopher Lee in other Franco epics, including Count Dracula (1970) and The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), as well as in several films directed by Jeremy Summers. It is no coincidence that the producer of all of these films, including The Bloody Judge, is her husband, the notorious Harry Alan Towers. Rohm certainly adds sensuality to a film that might otherwise just be unrelentingly grim. (This is my subtle way of saying she gets naked a lot and it distracts you happily from the torture bits.) Of course, I am joking… she doesn’t distract from the torture bits at all, since her biggest scene in the film is when she is locked in a cage and forced to lick the blood from a bound torture victim. I cringe in fear for any perv who actually gets his jollies from such a portrayal, but I will admit that the scene does add to the creeping effectiveness and overall griminess of the film.

Lee himself is solid as usual as the lead character, only loosely based on the real 17th century judge, George Jeffreys, who bullied his way through defendants, attorneys, and juries alike, and in this film’s version of the events surrounding the Bloody Assizes, dispatches accused witches to their doom without remorse. Of course, Jeffreys begins to grow worrisome over the chaos ensuing from his brutal courtroom tactics, and he begins to have nightmares of torture. That he will undoubtedly get his comeuppance is part of the fun of watching Lee in such a villainous role. 

It all depends on one's tolerance of tooth-yanking, hand-spiking, racking, digit-chopping, and beheadings, Don’t go looking for historical accuracy and try looking instead for pure psychotronic thrills, and you will definitely get something out of this.

Crypt of the Vampire (1964) [La cripta e l'incubo aka Terror in the Crypt; Crypt of Horror]
Dir: Camillo Mastrocinque
TC4P Rating: 5

If you have seen and loved Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960) as I have and do, then this Spanish-Italian version of Sheridan Le Fanu's novella, Carmilla will likely pale in comparison to the more famous earlier film. But it is a worthwhile rendering of its own, even if most character names have been changed, some bad dubbing is to be endured, and the director more than once betrays his obvious influencing by Mario Bava (never a bad thing).

Christopher Lee gets a heroic role this time, albeit a tortured one, and as in villainous roles, he has enough talent and range to pull the part off just fine. As Count Karnstein, he has to do battle against the light lesbian leanings of a mysterious vampire who is leaving drained bodies in her wake. It could be his daughter, who may be the reincarnation of an ancestor rumored to have committed such crimes, or it could be her recent companion, who has instilled herself into the daily life of the castle. The black and white cinematography is routinely effective if not spectacular, the sets and darkness of the castle are nicely rendered, and the heavy breathing, haunted ladies look divine onscreen.

This is the one of the three of these films where I am closest to giving it a higher rating, if only because it is the least gratuitous of the trio. This is likely due to it coming from a less permissive time in cinema (and just a handful of years earlier), so it relies more on subtlety and suggestion. However, there is a grandly gruesome sequence involving a dog tugging on the foot of a hanged peddler with his hand severed. Yes, it is derivative of Bava, but when a witch is seen using that hand as a candelabra in the very next scene while she invokes a spell, then you will know the film is a keeper.

[Postscript: I have since watched both Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and Crypt of the Vampire again, and while I am keeping Torture Chamber's rating at "5," I have shifted Crypt up to a "6," which is my general rating for "good."]


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