Bela Lugosi (1882 – 1956) was a Hungarian-American actor who gained international fame onstage as Count Dracula, the character that would define his career in film. He starred in a number of horror and mystery films where his saturnine good looks were either exaggerated for effect or obscured by disfiguring make-up. Along with colleague and occasional rival, Boris Karloff, he would define the meaning of horror for mass audiences for the much of the twentieth century.
Lugosi was born in Lugos, Hungary in 1882, the youngest of four kids. He dropped out of school and left home at the age of 12, and by 1902 began his acting career. His participation in the formation of an actor’s union made him a political target for imprisonment or death, and he fled Hungary in 1919, acting when and where he could. He emigrated to America in 1920 on a merchant ship, working as a sailor. He made his way to New York and joined the other Hungarian immigrants and also the theater scene, where he resumed his stage career.
In 1927, he played Dracula on stage, and the rest was history. His turn as the doomed aristocratic Count Dracula made him a Broadway star, and he toured across the country performing. When the touring company reached the west coast, Lugosi decided to stay there and act in movies. When the film rights were announced for the stage play, Lugosi campaigned for the part, and after much trial and error by Universal to find the right actor, he got a chance to audition for director Tod Browning. The film was a smash sensation, and it made Lugosi a household name.
Over the years, Lugosi tried to play other parts in films, but his presence as Dracula was such that he was only offered roles as villains, heavies, and a variety of mad scientists. The public loved Lugosi and Dracula and never let him forget it. His public appearances were always billed as some variation of “Dracula himself!” He expressed regret at not being able to play more varied roles in film, and he died while working with Ed Wood, Jr. on a Plan Nine from Outer Space in 1956.
Despite the circumstances, Lugosi was instrumental in creating a character that moved far beyond his literary roots, in looks, in mannerisms, and especially through his voice, with Lugosi’s Hungarian accent exaggerated to the point of caricature. Lugosi was Dracula for the 20th century.
These movies listed below serve as examples of Lugosi when he was able to shed the mantle of Dracula, and even occasionally trade on it (see below) to great effect. His signature films appear on other lists such as my Top 5 Dracula movies, and won’t be repeated here; instead, this list is for fans who want a more complete and well-rounded example of Lugosi during his heyday.
5. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, is resurrected when grave robbers remove the wolfsbane from his coffin. He’s taken back to civilization where, once more, no one believes he’s a werewolf until he kills someone. The old gypsy woman from The Wolf Man opines that maybe Dr. Frankenstein can help Talbot end his life permanently, and so he makes his way to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle by way of the village that was so recently terrorized by said monster. Another werewolf death sends The Wolf Man into the ruins of the castle. When Talbot comes to in the cellar, he stumbles across Frankenstein’s monster encased in ice and frees him. Undaunted by the monster’s inability to help him, Talbot sets out to find Frankenstein’s notes in the hope that the end of his curse lies in fringe science.
Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein in the movie opposite Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as Talbot. It’s hard to believe that Lugosi was pushing sixty at the time, and as a result, he couldn’t do some of the really physical stuff, like the fight at the end of the movie, so Lugosi’s stunt double filled in. Still, you can clearly see Lugosi under the Jack Pierce make-up in the close-up shots. Bridging the gap in time between the Frankenstein movies and the Wolfman movies was not even addressed in the interest of getting these titans of terror onscreen at the same time. Also, this Frankenstein was supposed to be Ygor at the controls, thanks to the brain transplant from Ghost of Frankenstein. The monster being able to speak was going to be a major plot point, but the test screening audience laughed at Lugosi’s accent coming out of the formerly inarticulate mouth of Frankenstein. Evidently, they hadn’t seen the previous two Frankenstein sequels. Those scenes were cut, damn the continuity of why the monster was blind, as well. The scenes have been lost to the vagaries of time.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is on the list for a couple of reasons, chief among them being that it was the genesis of what would become Universal’s shared world of classic monsters, and this “X vs. Y” formula continues in horror to this very day. It’s got a better than average script by Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak, picking up where The Wolf Man (1941) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) left off. It’s technically the third Ygor film, and moreover, proof that Lugosi could step—literally—into Karloff’s shoes. As a flawed minor masterpiece, it’s still entertaining, if not particularly scary.
White Zombie (1932)
Young lovers, engaged to be married, rendezvous on the Island of Haiti and hurry to the sugar plantation of Beaumont, a man they just met on a ship, because that’s just what one does in the early 1930s. They pass by a bunch of hollow-eyed, shuffling field hand and are told that they are zombies, under the control of “Murder” Legrange, played with evil-eyed intensity by Bela Lugosi and looking particularly saturnine in the role. But Beaumont is already in love with the young woman he just met (ahh! Haiti!) and he asks the zombie master for help in wooing her. Legrange says the only way to bend the woman to Beaumont’s will is to kill her and bring her back…as a zombie!
One of the most enduring themes in 1930s horror is unrequited (and sometimes forbidden) love. This movie is no exception, and the film borders on melodrama at times. The standout star here is Lugosi as the zombie master whose eyes and intense stare almost qualify as a special effect unto themselves. Lugosi was already famous for Dracula and he steals the show here, as well.
White Zombie is, for all its flaws, the first modern zombie movie. Zombies were an established part of many different folk traditions until the pulps got ahold of the concept and front loaded a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria and fear of miscegenation into the gruesome stories printed in magazines such as Weird Tales. This theme of a woman, helpless against the hypnotic charm and/or strength of the zombie master, would be repeated several times in other, better movies before George Romero rewired everyone’s conception of the walking dead in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Nevertheless, much of the lore and the allure of zombies continues to borrow from White Zombie.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Dr. Mirakle and his assistant take a shine to Camile, attending the carnival with her betrothed, medical student Pierre Dupin. Mirakle needs women to breed with his intelligent gorilla, Erik, for science, of course. As the heroine Camile isn’t too keen on that, Mirakle and his henchman resort to kidnapping, but only after killing a young prostitute when she proves inadequate to the task. Dupin figures out that the mad doctor is injecting gorilla blood into the women. When Camile is taken by Erik, the police find her mother, stuffed up into the chimney, quite dead. The heroes race to Mirakle’s lab to confront the madman, and everyone gets what’s coming to them.
The first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation for Universal Studios, and when I say that, what I mean is they took the title of the Poe story and one or two scenes suggested by elements in said story, and called it a day. As often as Universal and other studios and film makers went back to Poe’s dark well for inspiration, you’d think they would want to use a little more of the source material than that. But no matter. Poe, of course, is credited with inventing the modern detective story, and his classic tale involves August Dupin on the trail of a brute who slaughtered two women using the powers of deductive and analytical reasoning. Spoiler alert: It’s the big ape.
What this film lacks in textual fidelity, it makes up for in nuttiness, pseudo-science, and fears of miscegenation and/or the theory of evolution. Mirakle’s plan to gorilla-ize a woman for breeding purposes is just nuts, and also, fraught with meaning. This movie was in production when Frankenstein hit it big on the heels of Dracula and Universal increased the budget for some reshoots, which included, unfortunately, close-ups of a real ape to be used for close-ups of gorilla man Charles Gemora and the footage is ludicrous, to say the least, and a real insult to Gemora, who is still considered to be the best gorilla man ever. Lugosi’s mad scientist Mirakle was the first horror role he essayed after Dracula and he was so good at it, he was somewhat typecast as mad scientists for the rest of his career.
The Raven (1935)
Dr. Vollen, a brilliant neurosurgeon, comes out of retirement to perform a delicate operation on a beautiful dancer, injured in a car crash. As the doctor is a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe, the dancer performs an interpretive dance to a recitation of “The Raven” as part of her triumphant return to the stage. When the dancer’s father accuses Dr. Vollen of taking advantage of his daughter’s seeming infatuation with him, and implores him to reject her advances so she can marry her fiancée, the mad doctor plans an elaborate scheme, including torture, revenge, and the handy use of a wanted criminal who has come to the doctor, asking for help.
That sounds like a lot, and it is, but the story fairly gallops along at a brisk, pulpy clip, aided and abetted by an energetic performance by Lugosi as the power-mad doctor Vollen and co-starring Boris Karloff as the criminal who hoped for a new face to start a new life. There’s more Poe in this movie than in the other two offerings from Universal, but it’s a mishmash of bits and pieces, strung together without any real cohesion. Vollen’s house is filled with secret passages and horrible torture devices that are reminiscent of H.H. Holmes’ murder castle and they check every box for classic death trap.
Karloff got top billing, along with a salary that was twice what Lugosi was paid, but this is definitely Lugosi’s movie and he makes the most of every scene he’s in. Vollen is witty, charming, urbane, and maniacal and Lugosi transitions effortlessly from one to the other, and he looks like he’s having a ball, to boot. Maybe it’s because he got to boss Karloff around onscreen. Not even the supporting cast, who lend a bit of comic levity, can dampen the mood once the creeping around starts going on.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry, has arrived at Castle Frankenstein with his wife and son, and he’s determined to clear his family name. The villagers of the town aren’t so forgiving, however, and this intrigues Inspector Krogh, who lost an arm to the monster when he was a child, and who now wants to know more about the new tenant’s intentions. But it’s really the Frankenstein’s nearby neighbor, a blacksmith named Ygor (“Egor”) who gets the ball rolling by encouraging and helping Wolf into restarting the monster’s heart, ostensibly to clear his father’s good name. But Ygor has other plans for the monster, and they include avenging himself on the men in town who tried and hung him, breaking his neck and leaving him for dead.
The team of Lugosi and Karloff was already proven box office gold and it’s inevitable that Lugosi found his way into a Frankenstein movie, this time, as the devious Ygor. This film takes place several years after the events in Bride of Frankenstein, and it succeeds largely on the strength of Lugosi’s performance as Ygor, a role he would reprise two more times. The crippled blacksmith, with his broken neck and damaged voice from the bone in his throat, is a pitiable and also cunning character, a master manipulator of both man and monster.
Lugosi doesn’t get credit for carrying the Frankenstein movies into the 40s, but that’s exactly what he did. Karloff was doing other roles, and while he would appear in one more Frankenstein movie, he wouldn’t play the monster again. Regardless, Son of Frankenstein renewed interest in Universal’s horror movies (a series of films he helped launch), kicking off another wave of successful horror films that would include The Wolf Man (1941) and House of Frankenstein (1944).