True Blood, The Strain, Being Human and yes, even Twilight; we live in an age where the figure of the vampire is more widely known than ever before. Granted, depictions of vampires across all cultures go nearly as far back as human civilisation itself, but our views on the undead have certainly become more nuanced over the past century. As the hype around bloodsuckers doesn’t seem to be fading any time soon, I propose looking back to the original vampire king himself.
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known as Bela Lugosi, is surely one of the defining figures of horror cinema. Born in 1882, young Bela would have been 15 years old when Bram Stoker released his gothic masterpiece overseas. However, it would be a long time before these two paths met. Lugosi had quite the extraordinary youth by all accounts. Although he worked as an actor of some small repute, the young man, like many others of his generation, was called to military service in World War I.
He rose to the rank of captain in the ski-patrol and was awarded the Wound Medal for his work on the Russian Front. Lugosi continued his acting endeavours in Budapest after the war but it was not long before Revolution beckoned; 1919 saw the failure of a communist uprising, forcing Lugosi to flee due to his activism in the actor’s union during the revolution. Essentially, he had been an actor, soldier and revolutionary before he even hit his thirties!
After a brief stint in Weimar Germany, he made his way to the United States, where he further pursued a career in theatre. However, it was a Broadway production of an infamous Gothic novel which saw his rapid ascent to stardom. His role as Count Dracula was so captivating that Universal Studios soon adapted the play to film in 1931.
I adore Lugosi‘s portrayal for a number of reasons. I’ve always found the view of Dracula as some sort of misunderstood lover (used in the Gary Oldman and Jonathan Rys Meyers adaptations) is a tad reductive. The fact that he offers Mina Harker eternal life as a vampire is all very well, but he does so specifically to spite Van Helsing. Furthermore, his treatment of Lucy is unmistakably violent, leaving her to the mercy of the vampire hunters once she has quenched his thirst. In short, seeing Dracula as a romantic figure normalises his violence towards others, particularly women in the text. Right, tangent over, back to the film adaptation!
Lugosi‘s performance relied on minimal make-up for his role, but is unmistakably monstrous, relying heavily on the power of menacing expression. His difficulties with learning English meant that extensive monologues were out of the question, but his physical acting is outstanding. His stiff movements and slow, deliberate gestures go a long way towards convincing the audience that we are seeing a moving corpse on screen. His speech is brief, but dripping with irony and sarcasm to those around him. Few can forget this winner of a line: “I never drink…wine.” From his cold and distant demeanour, we get the impression that the Count is something beyond human, something which regards people as little better than ants beneath his feet. Graceful but brutal, seductive yet passionless and ancient yet youthful.
This scene is an excellent example of Lugosi‘s range. Dracula maintains a charming façade while speaking to Mina, but shows the animal within for a moment when Van Helsing tricks him with the mirror. He goes from anger, fear, astonishment, caution and finally arrogant condescension within the space of a few seconds. Although threatened by the professor’s presence, the Count presents as something thoroughly inhuman and unsympathetic. Through nothing but a cape and the strength of his acting, Lugosi effectively portrays the immense difference between vampire and human. He may play the part and wear the dinner jacket, but this is a person who will gladly rip your throat out if he suspects you’re onto him. His treatment of Mina is no different; we are never led to believe that in his interactions with Harker’s wife that the Count is thinking of anything other than drinking her blood.
It is for this reason that I regard Lugosi‘s later years as all the more tragic. Often typecast due to his thick Hungarian accent, Bela often found himself paired with another rising star, Boris Karloff in subsequent films. Despite Lugosi being the leading man of The Raven, Karloff was given top billing. No matter what he did, Lugosi found himself increasingly typecast in B-Movies.
This clip from Bride of the Monster is rather representative of his later work. Although the dialogue itself is quite corny, there is a deep pathos to his delivery. One can’t help see a shade of autobiography when the ageing Hungarian expat intones “Home? I have no home.” Lugosi‘s luck would not improve: chronic sciatica caused by old war wounds caused him such pain that he became dependent on morphine. This was noted by Universal executives, and offers dwindled as he was left to struggle with his burden. Towards the end of his life, Lugosi voluntarily checked into rehabilitation for his problem.
This interview with a noticeably frail Lugosi after leaving rehabilitation is emblematic of the way he was treated towards the end of his life. The old gentleman remains positive, joking about his recent divorce and expressing hope for new films. The disinterested interviewer ignores Lugsoi‘s attempts to mention new acting projects in favour of asking probing questions about addiction. Despite attempts to revive his career; Lugosi eventually died in poverty. He was buried in his Dracula cloak, a tribute to the one role he would always be remembered for.
I have selected Bela Lugosi as my nerd icon this week in respect for an excellent actor who deserved more than he got. Karloff and Universal would rise and fall, and Hammer would bring the heyday of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but few horror actors fail to acknowledge the force of nature that ushered in the age of Dracula. He may not have had sparkles, red eyes or even fangs, but he was indisputably captivating.