SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

"Just like Dracula . ." // A partly fictional tribute to Christopher Lee (featuring: The Wicker Man; Wicker Tree; The Girl; The Satanic Rites of Dracula; To The Devil a Daughter; Rasputin & Taste the Blood of Dracula!)

I sit down at the thick-legged, antique slab of a dining table that I have been shown to, and can't stop thinking that it looks more like a sacrificial altar than a place to relax and eat. My host - an old man with a slightly forced smile - places a wine glass in front of me; his aftershave overwhelming, like the heady scent of a crushed field of snow-white lilies, reduced to one splash. The hypnotising sensation of this aftershave, I am increasingly convinced, is worn as a mockery - or a silent threat. 
'Thank you,' I say, as he now pushes my chair closer to the table with effortless strength. My clothes are still damp, despite the removal of the coat that took the brunt of the downpour earlier as I scurried towards the only house that I could see had a light in a window. Or even had a window - all the other buildings around this part of the woodland, close to the village of Misty Moss-Crow (South), look derelict and permanently forgotten.

The old man pours me a glass of thick, glutinous red wine - and breathes a sigh of relief as I take a tentative sip.

Behind him, a log fire cackles like a spiteful witch, and spits embers across the scraggly black carpet of the living room. I start to fear that very soon we will all be going up in flames; like Edward Woodward did at the end of The Wicker Man - a favourite film of mine, but that doesn't mean that I want to be in it. Especially not as the main event.

I can't help but shiver as I stare at the old man's face and those deep black eyes that tell me they've seen all there is to see, in a very long life - the good, the bad and the undeniably wicked. His slicked-back, grey and white hair, is perfectly combed, and rolls down over the collar of the expensive grey shirt he is wearing - so that it lightly curls against the nape of his neck. 'What are you doing out in these woods so late?' the old man finally asks me, after a long and powerfully silent pause in which he just stares out the window at the flashes of lightning still acting so cross outside.

I take another sip of the sweet, metallic-tasting wine and lick my lips - pretending I like it. But I reckon it's an acquired taste. I keep on licking my lips though, as it feels as if the wine is still there - like treacle. I almost forget I've been asked a question. 'I was on my way to a film festival,' I tell him, in no way ashamed, despite most of my friends thinking I'm too obsessed with the darker side of cinema and saying they want me to lighten up. I'm past caring. Or even past forgetting, as Peter Cushing once said. 'And then my car broke down - probably zapped by the lightning,' I say. 'I've still got to get to Holmfirth - in Yorkshire. And I take it I'm still somewhere in Berkshire. In Misty Moss-Crow?'

'Bray, to be precise,' he smiles. 'Misty Moss-Crow is a sign that someone placed by the wood, I think as a joke. You didn't get very far, did you, on your way up to Holmfirth?'


And his teeth shine like jagged thick pieces of polo mint in the flickering light of molasses-black candles positioned carefully around the room. 'It's so late at night. And I'm afraid I don't drive. Nobody will rescue you at this ungodly hour,' he mutters, in clipped snippets of speech; as if working things out to himself. 'So - my friend, you'll have to stay until morning. Of course you will. I'm alone, all alone here - so you are welcome to stay. But I'm afraid I won't be here in the morning, to send you on your way.'

'Why not?' I ask. I don't really want to ask. But I do.

The old man ignores my question and pours himself some more red wine; from a separate bottle - one without a label and made of thick, black, glass. As black as all those burning candles around us. It's like we are stuck in an outtake from The Devil Rides Out. The wine almost oozes itself comfortably into the carved, milky crystal goblet my host is holding - with a steady hand, for such an elderly man. The warmth of the fire gets colder as I watch him drink; then lick the red devil's nectar off his slightly parted, mostly pursed lips with one quick swish of the tongue - like an eager lizard. 'So, are there very many good films to see at this festival?' he asks me, almost with a sneer.

I nod my head. My god - I think - you look just like . . .

'It's a Christopher Lee season,' I tell him. 'The whole week. But tonight there's an all-nighter of some of my favourites.'

The old man sits down opposite me and strokes the beard that falls across his chin into the shape of a sharpened tooth. 'And the films - that, ahem, you are now going to miss I'm afraid - are . .?'

'To be shown in this order: To the Devil a Daughter; Rasputin - The Mad Monk; Taste the Blood of DraculaThe Wicker Man; The Wicker Tree and The Girl.'

There is a loud and long chuckle - like the laughter of a exiled god - from the old man. It shakes the old black beams supporting the cracked ceiling above us and almost shatters the ancient windows that imprison the luxury he sits within. 'Why? Why those?'

'What do you mean?'

'Why do you like those films so much? He was hardly in The Wicker Tree - or The Girl.'

A film buff - oh crap! When two horror fans meet, the world implodes and the idea of restraint takes a burp . .

'Well, no, Christopher Lee wasn't well enough to have a starring role in The Wicker Tree. But his cameo dominates. Commands attention - and is a fitting tribute to the actor. Also a show of loyalty to his friend Robin Hardy who wrote and directed The Wicker Tree and directed The Wicker Man. And you will know why I like The Wicker Man so much - one of the most terrifying and claustrophobic, almost sinful but delicious representations of horror, sex and nature ever committed to film. And maybe of evil too, of sorts.'

The old man shakes his head angrily. 'Not evil . . just the natural law of selection. Is there any such thing as evil? I think there is good in much that is seen as sinful and bad in much that is known to be good. Such states of perfection - whether good or evil - are self-nominated too often by those who have their own agenda and pretence. Ha! But I digress. Carry on . . '

'As for The Girl, a film about obsessive, destructive and forbidden love, Lee plays a police investigator - if I remember right.'

'You don't know for sure?'

'It's a while since I last saw it. It was just a cameo anyway, but still forceful and commanding - I remember him sitting at a desk and bringing a sense of great authority to proceedings. Franco Nero stars and goes off the rails as well as he always does, but newcomer Clare Powney, in her only big screen role, is just stunning - creepy and effective as the girl inspiring a warped and fatal obsession. Lee offers the stable and serene calm in proceedings for once - a grave reminder of the madness taking place around him that's sure to end in tragedy, but that he's powerless to stop.

'But my very favourite movie of Lee's is probably Hammer's To the Devil a Daughter. In this one, he stars as Father Michael - a practitioner of the dark arts, and it's a performance that captivates and menaces with calculated calm and deceptively warm hatred of those who don't fit in to his demonic agenda. Lee reeks of cruel determination to ensnare Nastassja Kinski's flirtatious, terrified and ultimately tainted young convent girl who is - perhaps - doomed from birth to succumb to the dark side's deepest claws.'


'Hmmm . .' The old man picks up a sharply serrated knife from the fearsomely carved oak table we both lean upon - a table full of engravings of strange and almost obscene symbols, despite the impossibility of ever making any real detail out. He cuts himself some buttercup-yellow cheese from a big block in front of him that crumbles and breaks into salt crystal-dusted chunks - and places some on a plate with a few dark crackers. He pushes the plate towards me from the other end of the table, with an almost inhuman stretch. 'Here,' he says. 'You need to eat.'

'Thank you.'

'And the other films you mention . . ?'

'Taste the Blood of Dracula also hardly has Lee in the film at all. A secretive club of scaredy-cat decadent pleasure seekers raise a glass, enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, and feebly embrace the demonic - in true Sir Francis Dashwood, Hellfire Club-style. But less convincingly than the man himself would have embraced such pleasures, I'm sure. It backfires on them all when Dracula, the true Prince of Darkness, comes to the party and shows them all up as the cowards they really are - you almost sympathise with Dracula in this one; those old men actually do need to be taught a lesson!'

'Indeed. But surely some of those Dracula sequels were inferior to the original, and hardly worth the man himself speaking the odd bad line of dialogue for?'

'You may think so - but I love the sequels more than the original. Especially The Satanic Rites of Dracula, that's set in the modern day, with Cushing and Lee in a fight to the death - in a hawthorn bush! It's like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies up against Dr Loomis in the fourth film in the series - up in the attic. That moment somehow made the whole Halloween series just a little bit extra special and gave the franchise a finality. And it's the same with Satanic Rites. Of course, the Halloween movies carried on regardless, but that scene in the attic where the two protagonists meet - good against pure evil - is still the spiritual end, if not the practical, of that confrontation. Or at least unless Halloween: H2O came along some ten years later.'


The old man smiles at me with almost pitiful, but warm eyes that seem to pulse with renewed strength and power - like a heavy metal soundtrack to the naturally tormented world we live in. A world that now fits away outside us both as we sit sheltered from the still-raging storm; listening to the tree branches whip against the glass windows like demons trying to gatecrash the party - or like carriage drivers from the old Hammer films cruelly urging their horses to speed up the journey to Dracula's castle high on the snow-dusted mountain top. 'And Rasputin?' the old man raises a thick, tangled eyebrow. 'That's one of my favourites too. Why do you like it?'

'It's a Hammer film that I saw on the TV late at night as a boy and never forgot - I think there was a Hammer season on the BBC at the time. Lee commands attention as the central character; seducing, sexualising and corrupting all those around him - and being bloody impossible to kill off!'

We both laugh heartily. 'You know, I'd never seen so much Hammer-style violence and sex - or such scary, big staring eyes on the screen before, as I did when I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk! Eyes that penetrated the heart and drew blood. Eyes - like yours.'

'Like mine?'


'Have some more wine. What have you got in your bag, down by your feet, by the way?'

I pick up the sodden cloth rucksack, place it on my lap and take out a pile of DVDs - and one VHS tape. 'Films that I'm going to review.'

'For what?'

'A blog I write - called Seat at the Back.'

'Oh, I like that idea. A seat at the back - far away from the light; I really despise the light! Can I have a look at those films you have there?'

'Of course.' I pass him an old VHS copy of The Girl, and he smiles at the sight of British actress Clare Powney on the salacious front cover; towering over Franco Nero in her seductive white hold-ups. I remember how violent and shocking the film gets - after such a slow, immoral build-up.


And then he looks at my DVDs - of Rasputin and especially To the Devil a Daughter in which Lee leers at a snared and trance-like Nastassja Kinski in a foreboding location; the mausoleum of Sir Francis Dashwood in West Wycombe. It's a location I visited recently and felt the unforgettable filmic presence of Lee and Kinski - and their cat and mouse satanic strut to the death within a circle of darkness - all around me as I ventured close to the exact same spot they filmed upon in 1976. Or was that just the spirit of the real Sir Francis watching on, that made the silent air suddenly tingle and fret with playful arousal?


The old man rubs a little finger across the tortured face of Dracula on a soundtrack CD for The Satanic Rites; the vampire imprisoned by the sharp thorns of the hawthorn bush. Then he hands all the items back to me very carefully. Looking at them all with a gaze that suggests finality and loss - but also some pride.

'Why are you such a fan of this actor?' he asks me, like it's the start of an inquisition - or maybe a devious torture sequence instigated by Fu Manchu.

'Because I love the old Hammer films, and all the Dracula movies they made, I guess is one answer. But also so many of the other great films Lee has been in over the years, whether Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, The Wicker Man or Rasputin. Or even a live action Disney.'

'Ah, yes - you refer of course to Return from Witch Mountain!'

'That's right. So I love all the films, but I also find the man himself an enigma - unapproachable outside of the films he starred in and often frightening to watch, even when just being interviewed; just being himself. Lee always seems so quiet and forlorn; so deeply contemplative and serious - but also wild and experimental behind the public gaze and the serious stare. His love of heavy metal music for instance and his secret service past that we know so little about - still know so little about. I always love the story too about how he would read Lord of the Rings every year, and even once met Tolkien himself. And then there was his friendship with Peter Cushing, who I once met at a talk and book signing as a boy.

'And now I hope to have some of the films in this bag signed tomorrow by Cushing's great friend and most famous co-star - Sir Christopher Lee. I can't wait. If I get there in time that is, before he leaves at midday. I only wish it had been tonight.'

The old man strokes his immaculate beard and looks up towards the ceiling and beyond; to the multitude of stars above this stupid little planet we stride upon like miniature imaginary gods - and winks at me, with sly abandon. 'I don't think you will be meeting him, my good man. But the thought is there. Tomorrow - you must read the news when you wake up.'

'What do you mean - why?'

'One last thing,' he commands me to listen and not ask any more questions - so I sip some more of the gloopy red wine (that I'm starting to think may not be just wine at all - it sure doesn't taste like any Merlot that I've ever tried). His old but perfect teeth shine brightly and seem much longer than before; like smoothly carved milk teeth that never stopped growing - sleek and sharp and ready to bite. 'How will you remember Christopher Lee, and what kind of tribute would you write upon his death?' is all that he asks, a little morbidly.

I look away from the old man's burning, brutally fierce, but clearly gentle eyes - out of a window towards the far more calming storm outside. 'I'd write that, despite being so quiet and reserved and unknowable and having such a love of life and knowledge, I still always felt that Lee actually did have some kind of great and forbidden power; that he was even just a little bit . . dangerous!

'Just like Dracula.'

'So now it is time for me to go,' the old man whispers, and gets up from his chair slowly - towers over me as he strides away with a wave of his hand. 'It's almost dawn. You'll be able to find your room - it's the only one that's not boarded up on the first floor. Get up as late as you wish. Me? I live in the basement downstairs. And I never get up early,' he says with some seriousness - turning back to stare at me one last time with those constantly widening, bloodshot (maybe even blood-filled) dark, majestic eyes. 'I always try my best to avoid the daylight - don't I?'


Imagined by Mark Gordon Palmer  


One Last Thing!

Did you spot the cryptic clue in the text above, that links to another Christopher Lee movie; one he is less well known for?

"Misty Moss-Crow . . ."

Sound familiar?



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