I absolutely love Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 classic. He is pure aristocratic evil, able to put on a facade of gallantry yet betray it in mere seconds with a deadly glare at Van Helsing. Also, even in fine attire, in his own domain, in a dungeon, with rats, bugs, whey-faced brides or a cringing, spider-eating Renfield, he conveys malicious evil deeper than the filth around him. In that deepest part of his existence, his dead heart rots darker.
Why, though, did Lugosi’s Count Dracula ditch his Romanian, Hungarian playfields, where he had his pick of the scared villagers, and easy escape to his coffins filled with native soil, and go to alien England, with a mere few coffins and shovelfuls of native soil? Why choose such a conflicted, weak minion as the anonymous, unloved Renfield as his companion? And why set up shop, in Carfax Abbey, so close to such a deadly rival as Dr. Van Helsing? Why seek the virginal, well-protected Mina, the intended of the feckless Jonathan Harker, but whose back is closely watched by Van Helsing?
I’ve watched Lugosi play Dracula many times. I can knock away the silly claims that Dracula is a stagy film, or slow. Every frame is necessary — with the possible exception of the asylum employees played for laughs — to establish and maintain Lugosi’s Count’s sinister, evil, egotistical persona. But recently, I’ve added this interpretation. Did Count Dracula move to London, with its unknown attractions and more dangerous temptations, with the intention of ending his long, endless existence?
Dracula is a slave to his passion, his thirst for blood. It cannot be satiated, whether the victim is a mere flower girl or society belle Lucy. He knows well he cannot resist tasting his pretty neighbor Mina. He cannot even haul up stakes and flee after Van Helsing exposes him with the mirror parlor trick. In fact, Dracula, although nearly claiming Mina’s life due to his blunt force of personality, is merely pitiable at his end. He lies in his coffin, chased into the bowels of Carfax Abbey after being betrayed by the ill-fated Renfield, and submits to an anticlimactic, off-screen death at the hands of the vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Was the Count so vain as to think that no harm could come to him in his coffin filled with native soil in the basement of a rotting abbey? Van Helsing didn’t even have to break a lock to stab the Count in the heart. I think not. I hypothesize that Dracula himself was tired of living for centuries, that he chose his trip to London, a land of new blood and unseen dangers, as a deliberate step to the end of his existence. Although the script allows no confirmation, I think Lugosi’s Dracula must have known that he was to be the neighbor of his most feared enemy, Van Helsing.
Of course Dracula tried to prevent his death. His natural greed and cold evil did not dissipate in his last adventure, and he nearly succeeded — for a brief moment — in vanquishing Van Helsing. He allowed nature, his generations-old greed and lust for blood, to be his undoing.
The strongest evidence for Dracula’s death wish is found early in Dracula’s journey to London when he encounters Mina, her dad, Lucy, and Jonathan at the opera house. He says, wistfully, “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!” Mina Seward replies, “Why, Count Dracula!” and Dracula adds, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Dracula fights, he makes an effort to save himself, but he will not move from his final home. As a result, he is vanquished, but it is an honorable end for the old fiend.
Horror movie expert Frank J. Dello Stritto, who along with other experts have mulled over Dracula’s motives in his final days, opines that the slow, thousands year-plus lives of Dracula is conveyed by Lugosi’s mannerisms. Dello Stritto says, “He (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. Lugosi’s character is like Dracula himself — an extraordinary being trying to appear ordinary, and again not quite succeeding.”
I once wrote this of Dracula, and I stand by it. “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 was a slave of his filthy existence. Pleasure had long been usurped by bloodlust. It was a tremendous feat for the Count to keep it up for centuries. But he was tired, and chose London for his grand finale. He became, finally, really dead.
If you have not seen Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, do yourself a favor and watch it. It can be accessed, in parts, via YouTube (here) or for pay at Amazon OnDemand.