Long before his death in 2015, Christopher Lee had become a leading contender for the mantle of “Greatest Living Englishman”. In the early ’60s though, even after his dynamic impact in Hammer’s Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (58) and The Mummy (59), the British film industry didn’t know quiet what to do with him, if not cover him in scars and stitches or wrap him up in bandages. Even exposed as his handsome self in Dracula, the half-Italian (and intimidatingly tall) Lee was considered too “exotic” to be a British leading man, He didn’t even make it to second billing in a series of subsequent productions which often starred his pal Peter Cushing but whose credits privileged the names of e.g. André Morell, Anton Diffring, Paul Massie and Hazel Court (Lee’s Curse co-star) over his own. In response, like some young 18th Century gentleman embarking on a European Grand Tour to complete his English Aristo credentials, he undertook a series of EuroHorror assignments, many of them now collected and celebrated in yet another epic Severin box set (just when you thought your groaning shelves could take no more), The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection. I’m currently penning a larger piece on Lee’s Euro credits that you’ll soon be able to read (should you wish to) in a certain esteemed Horror organ, but couldn’t let this splendid release go unmarked in these pages.
While Lee’s Bava brace, his turns as non PC krimi orientals and his bemused dalliances with Jess Franco have been extensively covered elsewhere, over these 9 discs the Sevsters focus on some of the less heralded but no less significant outings on Lee’s Satanic rite of Europassage. Things kick off entertainingly enough with Warren Keifer’s Castle Of The Living Dead (Italy / France, 1964) in which the great man plays the emaciated Count Drago… the Gunther Von Hagens of his day. Never satisfied with the amount of plastinated people and animals adorning his gothic pile, the Count welcomes an itinerant troupe of comedy performers (including sexy Gaia Germani and a young Philippe Leroy) to Castle Drago, engineers the “accidental” death of one of them and sets about petrifying the rest with the aid of sinister side-kick Mirko Valentin. The shades of Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti hang heavily over the proceedings but equally obvious is the debt owed to Roger Corman’s Poe cycle (even though Keifer had to do without the candy coloured cinematography to which Rog – and by this point Bava – had access). Indeed, Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death was released earlier the same year. Watch out for Donald Sutherland in the dual roles of the buffoonish Sergeant Paul and a gnarly old witch…. and yes, Warren Keifer did exist (why would Sutherland name his son after an imaginary person?) and did direct this picture, Italian film scholar Roberto Curti authoritatively quashing the claims made for other film makers (including Michael Reeves, who was still learning the ropes on this one) during an informative featurette.
Giuseppe Vegezzi’s Challenge The Devil aka Katarsis is a whole other bubbling kettle of ketamine, with the most laughable collection of hipster kids (notably Giorgio Ardisson) outside of Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster seeking a night of thrills in a dilapidated castle (where else?) and discovering Lee in gnarly old dude make up, claiming to have sold his soul to The Devil (though there are plentiful hints that he might actually be Old Nick himself). As the plastic beatniks navigate a succession of heav-y symbolic scenes in the castle’s cellars, it becomes apparent that the collective influence of Freda, Bava and Margheriti has been displaced here by the presiding spirit of Ed Wood Jr and the biggest challenge to The Devil might well be unravelling Vegezzi’s original vision from the series of re-edits and added footage with which panicking producers sought to save their investment. Presumably they kept all of Lee’s footage… all ten minutes of it. If Vegezzi had made a bunch of these things, all existing in multiple alternative versions, he might well have one day merited a box as sumptuous as Severin’s recent Al Adamson Masterpiece Collection, but instead he jumped out of a high window after the film’s star Lilli Parker rejected his romantic overtures, survived that and retired to Piacenza and a life of eccentric left wing activism (as related in another Curti featurette, which includes interview footage with the elusive Vegezzi himself).
Things take an upturn in quality with Crypt Of The Vampire (aka Crypt Of Horror, 1964), originally intended for Antonio Margheriti but ultimately handled (and very capably, too) by Camillo Mastrocinque (who also directed Barbara Steele in An Angel for Satan, 1966). Lee racks up significantly more screen time too as Count Ludwig Karnstein, who spends most of it fretting (in his own voice, for once) over daughter Laura (Adriana Ambesi), whom he fears is the threatened reincarnation of witchy ancestor Ciro (wot, no “Carmilla”?), seeking vengeance for her execution (conveyed via a nifty, Black Sunday-esque flashback). The Count calls in bibliographer Friedrich Klauss (José Campos) to scour the Karnstein archives and find a likeness of the witch, but what they eventually turn up takes everybody by surprise… It’s obvious that this Italo-Spanish production is trying to keep up with Hammer (the Iberian side of the enterprise is represented by “Hispamer films”!) but it ends up actually anticipating the turn that Carreras and co subsequently took for Sheridan Le Fanu, though the sapphic relationship between Laura and her pal Ljuba (Ursula Davis) crackles along in understated style, as opposed to all the heaving bosoms that bedeck Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. Ah well, can’t have everything…
Lee gets a yet meatier role in West German-French-Italian co-production Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace (1962), which reunites him with Hammer legend Terence Fisher, who had directed him (as Sir Henry B) in Hammer’s Hound Of The Baskervilles three years earlier. Here Lee’s promoted to the titula Tec (which must have come as some consolation for the conspicuous false nose he’s required to wear) in an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Valley Of Fear, whose screenplay came courtesy of Universal veteran Curt Siodmak. The film’s an interesting amalgam of Fisher’s style and contemporary West German production / post production values. Its titles sequence, for example, must be one of the most boring ever committed to celluloid. No worries, though, things pick up as Lee’s Holmes (played like the prickly git that Doyle actually wrote… not much of a stretch for CL, by some accounts) dedicates himself (with the assistance of the ever dependable Thorley Walters’ Doctor Watson) to keeping Cleopatra’s necklace out of the clutches of Professor Moriarty (whose name seems to have grown an extra syllable here). Hans Shönker’s “Napoleon of Crime” might seem a tad underplayed for those brought up on the histrionics of Andrew Scott but works just fine here. The production’s apparently troubled circumstances thankfully don’t read on screen but to Lee’s ongoing chagrin, the rub (as it so often did) lies in the dub.
While he was still trying to establish himself back in Blighty, Lee was already sufficiently highly regarded in Europe for producers to shell out for one or two days of his box office-boosting presence. This series of nice little earners reached its cushy conclusion in the milieu of TV drama. For the 1971-2 Polish series Theatre Macabre (Film Polski’s adaptations of various dark literary classics, with episodes directed by the likes of Andrzejs Wajda and Zulawski) all that was required of him was to turn up at Columbia’s Wardour Street studio for a couple of days and film wraparound sequences (with director Ben Kadish) in the gallows humour style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Boris Karloff’s Thriller. I vividly recall seeing a handful of these, randomly scattered through Granada TV’s graveyard slot at various points in the ‘70s and am looking forward to checking out all 24 surviving episodes (of 26) over discs 5 and 6 of the Severin set.
Aside from that Polish series, the only colour production among the main features is Krimi kingpin Harald Reinl’s The Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism (1967). Also known as Die Schlangengrube Und Das Pendel and (for its UK theatrical release) Blood Demon, this West German production gets off to a lively start with the execution of “Count Regula” (guess who) for the blood sacrifices of twelve village maidens, by which he had hoped to secure eternal life. First, a spiked metal mask is hammered onto his face (Bava’s Black Sunday continuing to cast its long shadow over Eurohorror) then he’s torn limb-from-limb by galloping horses. 35 years later, Roger Mont Elise (Lex “Tarzan” Barker) turns up in town, seeking clues to his obscure family history. He soon wishes he hadn’t bothered, as he and his new love interest Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Natalie Wood look alike and Mrs Reinl, Karin Dor) are drawn into a plot to revive the Count, for whom the Baroness will make an ideal 13th victim in pursuit of his undying quest, conducted in an underground lair whose interior design owes much to Hieronymus Bosch. Meanwhile reckless Roger gets the full on “Pit and the Pendulum” treatment. All of this no doubt sounds distinctly sepulchral, but the overall tone is that of an enjoyably upbeat adventure romp, enhanced by the James Last-like score of Peter Thomas, possibly the most inappropriate musical accompaniment to a horror film since the closing moments of Erle C. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls (1932).
Disc 8, dubbed Relics From The Crypt, is a glorious grab bag of Lee-themed odds and sods, including a first release of any description for Horror!!!, the recently unearthed 20 minute Swiss TV documentary from 1964 which includes interviews with CL, his erstwhile co-star and next door neighbour Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Roy Ashton and Roger Corman, also boasting behind-the-scenes footage from The Gorgon and Masque Of The Red Death. Lee Remembers Karloff in Behind The Mask, a new edit of the Ian Rough documentary left unfinished in 1991. In another featurette, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, assistant director Tonino Valerii and film historian Fabio Melelli discuss the making of Crypt Of The Vampire. Colin Grimshaw interviews Lee in 1975 and from 10 years later there’s an audio interview by David Del Valle, accompanied by DDV’s video introduction and stills from his archive. Lee’s baritone vocal stylings are aired in video clips for his duets with Gary Curtis and we are also privy to his rapturously received appearance and Q/A session at University College, Dublin in 2011. The venerable Horror star discusses To The Devil A Daughter and Theatre Of Blood, among others, in outtakes from David Gregory’s 2001 interview sessions with him to promote the Blue Underground releases of those films. As if all this weren’t enough, we accompany Gregory’s co-honcho Carl Daft on a visit to the renowned critic Alan Frank, who I’d like to think of as Carl’s second favourite grizzled genre pundit.
The discs are scattered with the expected profusion of trailers, galleries and interviews, e.g. with legendary producer Paul Maslansky, Karin Dor (audio only) and Giorgio Ardisson. Grilled in 2009 and just before his death in 2014, the engaging Giorgio comes across as quite a character and has plenty of amusing anecdotes to relate. There are audio commentaries from the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger and the dynamic duos of Nathaniel Thompson / Troy Howarth and Kim Newman / Barry Forshaw. The films look more gorgeous than you had any right to expect B movies of this vintage to look, in 2K scans from their negatives (or a fine-grain 35mm master print in the case of Crypt Of The Vampire)… apart from Castle Of The Living Dead and Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism, which were scanned in 4K! TTCODS also comes with a restoration slideshow, not to mention not one but two Super 8 digest versions. The whole package is beautifully boxed and comes with Jonathan Rigby’s extensively researched and handsomely illustrated booklet, which you might well enjoy while listening to disc 9 (Angelo Lavagnino’s OST for Castle Of The Living Dead) and enjoying a glass of virgin’s blood… hm, probably better make that a full blooded red wine, eh?