Christopher Lee’s initial appearance in Dracula, in 1958, was a shock. Before that moment, the fabled vampire was more associated with Max Schreck’s demonic Nosferatu from the classic German silent picture — a pale creature closer to Gollum from today’s Tolkien movies. The vampire was something stunted, bestial, insidious.
But when Lee’s Count Dracula first walked down to the stairs to greet his visitors in the first Hammer movie version it was a revelation. He was tall (six foot five), handsome and well-built, with an easy athleticism and a frank, direct manner. His deep, melodious voice completed the effect: commanding. There was nothing unwholesome-looking about this vampire, not at first: he looked more like a British or at any rate Central European version of Gary Cooper. So it was even more powerful and shocking when this patrician figure disclosed his Satanic qualities: and that face became pale and contorted, when the lips peeled back to reveal the fangs, the eyes turned red and the lips dripped with blood — and his whole being oozed with forbidden sexuality. Christopher Lee was Dracula; he had taken over the character as clearly as Sean Connery took over James Bond.
He took the role in a string of other Dracula sequels, which became increasingly seedy and humiliatingly preposterous for this sensitive and thoughtful actor. But there was no doubt about it. Along with his similarly refined colleague Peter Cushing, Lee had virtually invented the lucrative Hammer horror brand. He made other pictures for a studio with which he was associated for 20 years, before getting out in the late 70s to avoid typecasting. Modern PR types call it detoxifying your image. This was more like devampirifying it.