I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.
When Universal Studios released “Dracula” in 1931, I don’t think anyone imagined the worldwide obsession that would follow. Bram Stoker’s novel was already 34 years old, and “Dracula” wasn’t the first vampire film. But this was the first time the audience was introduced to a charming and dapper Count Dracula; a villain they wanted to love.
In England, in 1924, “Dracula” the stage play was the first adaptation of the novel authorised by Stoker’s widow. In 1927, the play came to America and in his first major English-speaking role, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi donned the famous Dracula cape for the first time. And a legend was born.
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born on October 20, 1882. “Dracula” was his claim to fame, but as is the sad destiny of many actors, he was the victim of typecasting and would never be free of the horror villain role that made him famous. His heavy accent also limited his future acting opportunities.
I am definitely typed, doomed to be an exponent of evil.
There’s no question that Lugosi is best remembered for his role in “Dracula”, but his other films are certainly worth a second look too. “White Zombie” (1932) is a creepy tale of mind control and the walking dead. Lugosi also paired up with fellow Universal horror legend Boris Karloff in a number of films: “The Black Cat” (1934) and “The Raven” (1935) most notably. A personal favourite of mine is the lesser-known “The Corpse Vanishes” (1942), and of course the Universal classic “The Wolf Man” (1941) where Lugosi plays the character of Bela — the son of a gypsy fortune-teller who is responsible for turning Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) into a werewolf.
Lugosi’s career and health deteriorated over the next decade or so, and his final (and dialogue-less) film appearance was in the heavily scorned “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. Both the film and its director Ed Wood have been dubbed “the worst” (worst movie ever made/worst director ever). Lugosi died before the film was completed, but footage shot of him still made it into the final product.
He may have ended on a low note, but Lugosi has never (and will never) be without a faithful legion of friends and fans. And thankfully, his mesmerizing and charismatic portrayal of the most famous vampire in history will forever outshine any duds that may be lurking in his film closet.
Bela Lugosi suffered a heart attack and died on the 16th of August, 1956 at the age of 73. A showman to the end, he was buried in his Dracula costume. When friends and fellow horror masters Peter Lorre and Vincent Price came to pay their respects, Lorre quipped to Price, “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?”
Today, on the anniversary of his death, we remember this talented actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age. His career may not have been as diverse as he wanted, but if you’re an undying fan of classic horror like I am, then his fright-heavy filmography doesn’t bother you one bit.
I’d like to close this post with the words of Forrest J. Ackerman, who wrote this touching memoriam for his close friend, the Immortal Count. May he live forever.
Dracula is dead.
Requiem for the Generation of Vampires.
A thousand stakes through his heart could not keep him from resurrecting nightly, but at last the Grim Reaper has had his way.
On 18 August 1956, Bela Lugosi lay for the last time in the coffin from which he would rise no more. Scant weeks before, my friend and I had been photographed and televised together just two blocks away on Hollywood Blvd. At the premiere of his “Black Sleep”. Now the true, the final black sleep had come to Bela. A tired, ill, suffering, disintegrating, grateful-for-friends old actor was gone.
He lay in state as Count Dracula, complete with cape and ring and medallion. Among the many who passed by his coffin to pay their last respects were Zoltan Korda, Tor Johnson, Manly P. Hall, Don Grollman, and Bela Lugosi Jr. All saw that he looked magnificent in death.
But Bela Lugosi will never really die.
Through the miracles of motion picture and television, as long as there are those who enjoy the frisson of horror, the fun or fear of the fantastic, the shock and thrill of science, there will be revivals of the films in which he starred.
Hail, but not farewell, Bela Lugosi.