From Dracula to Saruman, revisit 10 essential Christopher Lee genre performances

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Jun 11, 2015, 4:57 PM EDT

We're all still recovering from the news that the great Sir Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday at the age of 93, but the good news is that we have a lifetime's worth of great work in movies and television to look back on and enjoy. Lee was an uncommonly prolific actor, appearing in more than 200 films between 1948 and 2015, and though some of them aren't exactly memorable, more than a few became absolutely iconic. In the early decades of his career, Lee extablished himself as the king of British horror, playing everyone from Dracula to Frankenstein for Hammer Studios and beyond. In the later decades, he became a kind of elder statesman of sci-fi and fantasy, lending his authorative voice and tremendous screen presence to everything from The Lord of the Rings to Dark Shadows

So, to help us all mourn a legend's passing, let's look back at 10 of Lee's most iconic performances.

The Creature: The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957 

Lee had been working in small roles for nearly a decade when he got his big break in Hammer Studios' first major horror effort, a loose remake of Frankenstein that cast Peter Cushing as the scientist and Lee as the creature. It's a wordless performance, but Lee said everything he needed to say with his eyes. 

Count Dracula: Horror of Dracula, 1958 

Though he would later add roles like Francisco Scaramanga and Saruman to his resume, Dracula is arguably still Lee's most famous character. He played the Count 10 times, including seven times for Hammer, and it all began here in what's still a classic film.

Kharis: The Mummy, 1959 

Lee and Cushing completed their Hammer horror trifecta with this film, in which Lee stars as both an Egyptian high priest and his walking, mummifed corpse. The mummy segments are, like his Frankenstein's monster performance, wordless, but it's amazing what he managed to do with his body language and eyes.

Duc de Richleau: The Devil Rides Out, 1968

The Devil Rides Out might be the least well-known of all the films listed here, but if you haven't seen it you really should give it a try. For this film, Lee brought his love of the occult to Hammer, and played a mysterious but heroic occult expert battling Satanists in the English countryside. It's not subtle at all, but that's a big part of what makes it so fun.

Count Dracula (Again): Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970

Yeah, I know, I'm talking about Lee as Dracula twice, but that's because there are essentially two different eras of Christopher Lee Dracula, and this is the second. In one of his final three Hammer outings as the Count, Lee was already tired of playing the role, but he nevertheless poured everything into it. His Dracula, even 12 years after he first played the role, is still mesmerizing, terrifying and even sexy in this film.

Lord Summerisle: The Wicker Man, 1973

Lee lated dubbed The Wicker Man the favorite among every film he ever made. It's a bewitching mix of dark comedy, folklore and sheer terror, and Lee seems to embody it all effortlessly as the charming and unflappable Lord Summerisle. The film doesn't center on him, but he steals every scene he's in.

Francisco Scaramanga: The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974

Christopher Lee might be the best Bond villain ever. He was at the peak of his villainous powers in the mid-'70s, and he managed to be the perfect foil for Roger Moore in this film. He's everything you want for the role: charming, subtle, scary only when he absolutely needs to be, and under it all is the sense that you can absolutely buy Scaramanga toying with Bond rather than killing him, not because he's foolish, but because he loves it. 

Dr. Catheter: Gremlins 2: The New Batch, 1990

By the time Gremlins 2 rolled around, Lee was more or less done with horror films, so it was fitting that he was cast in this cult sequel as a mad scientist who's pretty much had it with monster movie shenanigans. He makes a fantastic straight man.

Saruman: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014)

Lee was famously a Tolkien superfan, and actually had the chance to meet the author once, so starring in The Lord of the Rings films was a lifelong dream come true. His Saruman is the perfect blend of wise and malevolent, and it's fascinating to watch Lee tackle a villain that could've been so cartoonish and portray him so believably.

Count Dooku: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

We can mock the Star Wars prequels all we want, but you can't argue Christopher Lee's power onscreen. His Count Dooku savors every scenery-chewing bite of evil, he's possessed of the ability to utter even the most ridiculous lines in a way that makes theme feel significant, and he also got to put his famous love of and expertise in fencing to good use. 

What was your favorite Christopher Lee performance? Let us know in the comments, and raise a goblet to one of the greats.