This column was originally published in the Oct. 20, 2006 edition of The Standard-Examiner.
75 years later, Lugosi's Dracula is the one who spooks us each
By Doug Gibson
"No, no — Dracula never ends. I don't know if I should call it a fortune or a curse, but it never ends."
— Bela Lugosi, 1951
Truer words were never spoken by the Hungarian actor. The irony was, by 1951, the heart of Lugosi's career had been pierced with a far sharper stake than Dracula ever endured.
When I was a child, the three kings of horror films were Boris Karloff, who played the monster in "Frankenstein," Lon Chaney Jr., the wolf man, and Lugosi's "Dracula" vampire. What a treat it was to discover their films — on the local independent TV station — past midnight or on a Saturday morning.
Chaney Jr.'s wolf man has faded in memories, as far scarier versions have been found in London and Hogwarts. Karloff's monster is still recognized. But the screen monster who resides longest in our nightmares remains Lugosi's vampire. Imitators such as Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman are quickly forgotten. We always return to the Hungarian.
Today is Lugosi's birthday, in the heart of the Halloween season. He has been dead 50 years. When he died he was a destitute, recovering drug addict. His last real screen role was as a bit player — a mute to be pitied in a barrel-scraping horror film. TV rescued the legacy of "Dracula." Whether it was on "Thriller Theater" or "Creature Features," millions of "monster boomer" kids discovered the Universal monsters.
I chatted with "monster boomer" Frank J. Dello Stritto, co-author of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain." Dello Stritto is also an essayist on classic cinema horror. Many are compiled in a book, "A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore."
Dello Stritto reminds us that Lugosi — a veteran of more than 100 films — only played a vampire in three — twice as Dracula. Part of Lugosi's success as Dracula, he says, is that the vampire seems to be from another era.
"(Lugosi) put into his performance a lot of subtle touches to make Dracula seem from another world: the odd pace of his speech, the use of his cape, his very slow movements compared to the other cast members' ... A lot of actors who play Dracula are ordinary men trying to appear extraordinary, and not quite succeeding," explains Dello Stritto. "Lugosi's character is like Dracula himself — an extraordinary being trying to appear ordinary, and again not quite suceeding."
I have seen "Dracula" scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire's victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi's vampire murders actor Dwight Frye's cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula's exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath.
Dracula made Lugosi rich for a while; but as he said, it was also a curse. He was too often typecast as a villain, or red-herring, in low-budget films. After 1940, he only starred in three top-tier productions. Nevertheless, he was actor enough to give 100 percent in every film. For those whose knowledge of Lugosi ends with "Dracula," here are a few other films worthy of Halloween viewings:
* "White Zombie" — In this creepy 1932 thriller, Lugosi plays "Murder" Legendre, a Haitian Mephistopheles figure who enslaves zombies to work his plantations and factories. A lovesick man brokers a Faustian deal with Legendre to win the love of a girl, with terrifying consequences. This is a very low-budget film that proved to be a monster hit — sort of like "The Blair Witch Project" was 67 years later. Lugosi biographer Gary Don Rhodes has devoted an entire book to this film.
* "The Devil Bat" — As mentioned, after 1940, Lugosi made a string of low-budget horror/mysteries for B- and C- movie studios. One of the better ones was 1940's "The Devil Bat," from the long-defunct Producers Releasing Corporation. The plot of "Devil Bat" involves a mad, brooding scientist creating mutant bats to kill his employers.
Although prominent today, thanks to DVD and channels such as Turner Classic Movies, these films originally played in rural America or small towns. In the big cities, they were often relegated to matinees. So while Lugosi could still be called a "star," his reputation — and pocketbook — were taking a slow beating. The films lacked the budget, talent and special effects to be creepy, but Lugosi is great.
"Even in his worst films, Lugosi often manages to project something memorable and out of the ordinary. Lugosi studied and made notes on his scripts, looking for something special that he might get into a part," says Dello Stritto.
Other low-budget Lugosi films worth viewing are "Bowery at Midnight," "The Corpse Vanishes," "Voodoo Man" and "The Ape Man."
* "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" — This 1948 horror-comedy is a great film to introduce Lugosi to younger viewers. As Count Dracula, he is a magnificent menace. His strength? Lugosi keeps Dracula in character, and never allows the monster to be laughed at. The humor comes from the reactions of Abbott and Costello. Also in the film are Chaney Jr.'s wolf man and Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster.
This was Lugosi's final major Hollywood film. It was a hit and rejuvenated Abbott and Costello's career. Unfortunately, Universal decided Lugosi deserved no credit, and he could not find another big-screen role for four years.
* "Bride of the Monster" — This is a terrible movie, directed by the infamous Ed Wood — immortalized by Johnny Depp as the worst director ever. However, if you appreciate Bela Lugosi, see this 1955 film. It is his last starring role, and it will move you to see this frail, emaciated, drug-addicted old man giving it his all in this micro-budget film. After production wrapped, Lugosi checked himself into a rehab center to battle a 20-year addiction to painkillers. As bad as the film is — a photo enlarger is an atomic ray, stock shots don't match, hokey dialogue, amateurish acting, a broken octopus machine — like most of Wood's films, it is strangely watchable. The best you can say about Ed Wood is that he was both bad ... and unique.
Appreciating Bela Lugosi is a trait best learned early, explains Dello Stritto. "It pays to get hooked on Lugosi when you're young. That's when a viewer is most easily swept up by his particular energy. For that reason, 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' cannot be overestimated in its importance in perpetuating the legacy of both Lugosi and the classic monsters. For me and countless others like me, this was the movie that hooked us as kids and made us come back for more."
But it's not too late for even adults. If you haven't spent some time with the screen's greatest monster, this Halloween season is the perfect first date — just watch your neck.
Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.