Of all the actors I’ve been featuring in the Icons of Horror column this month, easily the most tragic case is that of Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi, who was arguably the very first of the major horror stars of the talkie era. He experienced an explosion of amazing roles in a very short and concerted period of time, then was mainly relegated to supporting roles or B-picture leads where he was cast for name recognition only. He was living on poverty row and later developed a heroin addiction stemming from the opiates used to treat his chronic back pain, a result of fighting in the first World War. It’s a truly sad case, and Lugosi, whose distinctive accent was both a boon and a detriment to his career, should have received better.
But despite the disappointment, Bela Lugosi is one of the great Icons of Horror and I absolutely have a list of my seven favorite films where he had a lead or very strong supporting role. Your list might be different, but I’m the one writing, so let’s begin.
7) White Zombie (1932)
When making my list of favorite movies, I didn’t look up years until I was ready to write, and so I was incredibly surprised by how many of them occurred in 1932. Three of my top seven were released in the second year of the big horror renaissance. The first one on the countdown features Lugosi ostensibly reprising his famous vampire role, this time as a scowly-eyed voodoo priest in Haiti who uses hypnosis to make zombie slaves. Many shots in this independently-produced film focus on Lugosi’s face and slowly tightening hands. His character is Murder Legendre, for Pete’s sake! What a great villain name! While the movie didn’t do very well upon its initial release, it has since become a well-regarded classic, and is considered to be the very first feature-length zombie film.
6) Son of Frankenstein (1939)
One thing that we’ll find on this list is that Lugosi was often made second banana to contemporary Boris Karloff, who became a much bigger star. This naturally irritated Bela, but what we’ll find is that he’s often the one who impresses more in these films despite the name lower on the bill. Here, Lugosi played Ygor, the hunchbacked lab assistant to Basil Rathbone’s titular mad scientist offspring. Karloff is back to being just a hulking monster while Lugosi gets the opportunity to create a brand new character, and one that has become associated with the Frankenstein mythos ever after. While Lugosi eventually played the creature himself in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, it was his character in Son and later The Ghost of Frankenstein that makes the list.
5) Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Another from the Class of ’32, this was Lugosi’s first foray into a film loosely based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (Who is he, Vincent Price?!) In this, based on surely one of Poe’s weirdest stories, Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist who injects ape blood into young, virgin women in order to (I guess) create a mate for his talking sideshow gorilla named Erik. It’s just weird enough to work, and the Pre-Code nature of the story had lots and lots of violent and salacious scenes which were eventually cut by the studio, Universal. Lugosi is really good at playing the villain and this was before he had gotten tired of it, so he’s really great.
4) The Raven (1935)
This movie may have been a very early ancestor of the Saw films. Lugosi has the lead role, but his name ended up below the title, while Karloff, who played the hulking murderer on the run, got top billing. Unfair, because it really could have been a star vehicle for Bela. He plays a brilliant retired surgeon who is implored to help a young girl after a car accident. He succeeds in mending her and they become friends, where he begins to reveal his weird and twisted obsession with Edgar Allan Poe, and of recreating torture devices like the Pit and the Pendulum. At the same time, Karloff’s murderer comes on the scene wanting some plastic surgery, which the surgeon can’t do but says he can in exchange for helping him kill the girl’s disapproving father. When the murderer refuses, saying he wants to look normal so he can stop being a killer (?), the surgeon purposes disfigures him further, leading to a dinner party from hell. Gleeful mayhem.
3) Island of Lost Souls (1932)
This is by far Lugosi’s smallest part on this countdown but it ranks so highly for me by his sheer willingness to be amazing in what he’s given. In this Pre-Code version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton plays the mad scientist who has lived on an island and performed experiments on animals to try to make them into humans over the course of a long, long time. One of his experiments is “The Panther Woman,” who looks pretty close to human and so he tries to get her to…mate…with a human man. Gross. Lugosi plays the Sayer of the Law, the most articulate of the Beast Men who live in a village away from the House of Pain (the laboratory, not the ’90s rap group). When they get restless, Moreau cracks the whip and demands what is the law, which allows Lugosi to shout the law and finish by saying “Are we not men!?” When the fit finally hits the shan at the end, and the Beast Men overthrow and murder Moreau, it’s Lugosi’s tortured and angry howls of “Not man! Not beast! Part man! Part beast! THING!” that gets the ball rolling.
2) The Black Cat (1934)
This is the only film on the countdown where Lugosi plays – well, I’m not going to say “hero,” but where he plays a sympathetic lead character. He plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast who has been in a prison camp for the past 15 years stemming from the War. He meets a pair of American honeymooners in Hungary on a train while he is going to see his old friend, a famous architect (Karloff). After the three travelers get into a car wreck, Vitus has to treat the woman with an hallucinogen. They rest at the architect’s home, where Vitus accuses him of giving away their position in the war, leading to his imprisonment. But it’s so much worse than that; the architect killed Vitus’ wife and has taken his young daughter as his own bride. He also murders women and keeps them preserved and stuffed in glass cases. It’s pretty effed up. The utter angst and hatred on Lugosi’s face when he realizes what’s happened, and the glee with which he hopes to take his revenge is only matched by the tragic though ultimately cathartic ending. Easily, only of Lugosi’s most emotional and impressive roles. And, holy crap, what a demented story.
1) Dracula (1931)
And, finally, what else am I going to pick here but the role that made Bela Lugosi a star? He originated the role in the theatre when the play of Bram Stoker’s novel was performed in London and New York. When it was adapted into a film by Universal, they brought Lugosi in to reprise the vampiric Count. Now, I need to point one very, very important thing out: Tod Browning’s Dracula is a boring movie. There are some cool shots in it and Dwight Frye as Renfield is really quite great, but the movie doesn’t really make sense because so much of the movie got cut for whatever reason that the story doesn’t follow. (Watch the Spanish-language version made concurrently if you want a much better movie.) That said – Lugosi is absolutely amazing as Dracula! He and Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing have a wonderful, sparky repartee and you can totally buy people being enamored of Lugosi’s charm and European class. And, let us not forget, when people pretend to be Dracula, they’re usually doing a Bela Lugosi impression. He is the definitive version of both the character and of a vampire in general. “Children of the night. What music they make!”
So there you have it! Boy, that Bela Lugosi sure was great for a time, huh? Let me know your favorite Lugosi movies in the comments below, and come back next week for our final Icons of Horror article for Nerdoween, looking at the late, great Christopher Lee!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!