Why Christopher Lee Almost Never Spoke In His Dracula Movies

On May 27, 2022, we celebrated what would have been Sir Christopher Lee's 100th birthday. Although the legendary actor is no longer with us, he lived a life that "remarkable" doesn't even begin to cover. After a tour as an intelligence officer in the British Royal Air Force during World War II, Lee appeared in over 250 films. He's particularly renowned for his work in the horror genre. During his early acting career, he was one of the regular players at Hammer Film Productions, famous for their low-budget, technicolor horror films. Lee usually played the monster in the movies — his imposing stature would allow nothing else — and this put him at odds with the heroes played by his good friend Peter Cushing.

Lee's most famous Hammer role is definitely Count Dracula; he played the vampire over 10 times, seven of which were in Hammer films. New viewers might be surprised to learn how quiet Lee was when he acted as the Count.

A silent predator of the night

Lee's greatest asset as a performer was his voice; his baritone timbre radiated authority God himself would struggle to match. Yet, Lee had minimal screen time across the Hammer "Dracula" films. In the first, simply titled "Dracula" or "Horror of Dracula" depending on which side of the Atlantic you're from, Lee has a handful of lines in his first scene with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen). He's disarmingly polite, and he never raises his tone. For the rest of the film, once his true nature is revealed, he's totally silent. In Lee's second appearance, "Dracula: Prince of Darkness," he never says a word at all. According to Lee himself, there's a simple reason for his lack of dialogue:

"I read the script [for 'Prince of Darkness'] and the lines were literally unsayable ... So I said, "I'm sorry, I'm not saying these lines, you'll get a terrific laugh,' which I'm quite convinced we would have done.'"

Lee's silence wasn't necessarily a drawback, as it made Dracula feel inhuman. Still, the actor indicated he would've been more talkative had Hammer heeded Bram Stoker's text more.

"[My lines] were not Bram Stoker. This was a great fight I used to have over the years with Hammer. I kept on saying, 'Why don't you use Stoker's words, Stoker's dialogue?' if you like. Oh no no no. So somebody used to write lines like, 'I am the apocalypse,' beyond belief."

Indeed, in 1970, Lee starred in "Count Dracula," a non-Hammer production that more closely follows Stoker's novel. He was also able to get some references to Stoker in the Hammer films. "Dracula A.D. 1972," otherwise the furthest removed from Stoker, features Lee paraphrasing the book line, "Whilst they played their wits against me — against me who commanded nations."

Why Lee kept doing them

Christopher Lee's eventual antipathy toward Dracula has been well documented. Indeed, according to "A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer" by Denis Meikle, there was a failed attempt to replace Lee and the Count in "Taste the Blood of Dracula." The original plan for the film was for Ralph Bates to play a character named Lord Courtley, who would be transformed into a vampire and assume the headlining villain role for the rest of the series. Contractual obligations necessitated Lee's return; instead of just becoming a vampire, Courtley transforms into Dracula himself.

So why did Lee keep making these movies he had no fondness for? Simple: He wasn't doing it for himself, but to help keep Hammer afloat. In an interview, he explained:

"I turned down all but the first two ['Draculas'], and here comes the crunch, 'think of the people you'll put out of work if you don't do it.' So what do I do, am I going to be responsible for putting 90-100 people out of work? Actors, actresses, directors, writers, producers, technicians, how could I? So I did them, and that is the only reason why. It certainly wasn't for money."

However, many would disagree with Lee's assessment of his own work, among them directors who Lee would work with during the 21st century. Peter Jackson and Tim Burton are confirmed Hammer fans (Burton: "'Dracula A.D. 1972.' I love that movie!"). Lee's Hammer work is what allowed for the resurgence he experienced in his twilight years. Moreover, Lee's performances as Dracula are proof that even deprived of his voice, he could still ensnare, seduce, and terrify.