Christopher Lee, whose nearly 70-year acting career spanned most of the 20th century and nearly all of the 21st century so far, saw numerous technological, cinematic, and cultural trends come and go but remained an institution all the while. He first grew famous, as his many fans know, in the vivid, campy Hammer Horror films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s like The Curse of Frankenstein, Corridor of Blood, and Dracula. His starring role in that last gave him his signature onscreen persona — he would go on to play the blood-sucking Count a total of ten times — but though he specialized in dark, villainous roles, his understanding of their essence meant his hundreds of performances transcended their eras, and often their material as well.
Lee knew, in other words, what it meant to be frightening, ominous, or simply unsettling in a rich and intriguing way, and that knowledge can hardly have come without an appreciation for the enduring work of Edgar Allan Poe.
We've previously featured several of Lee's readings of the 19th-century American master of the macabre, including Poe's most famous works like "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," but only dedicated collectors will have run across the long out-of-print release we submit for your enjoyment today: Christopher Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Horror, originally released in 1979, on cassette only, by the discount label Music for Pleasure, Ltd.
Spanning two tapes, this recording includes not only "The Fall of the House of Usher" but "The Black Cat," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Cask of Amontillado," all of which demonstrate not just Lee's ability to conjure up a spooky atmosphere with his voice alone, but his perfect suitability to the kind of language Poe used to tell his stories, always highly mannered even while hinting at the unspeakable depths below. The question of what makes Poe's writing so of its time yet so timeless may never be fully answered, but then, nor, probably, will the question of what makes Lee's elegant performances stand out from even the most schlocky or dated productions. Whatever the reasons, the union of the two always guarantees captivating listening, even from a simple 1970s bargain-bin package like this one. You can find old cassettes of Christopher Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Horror floating around on Amazon.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.