If there’s one actor who is associated with the Dracula role in Western media beyond all others, it’s probably Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi, a Hungarian who came to America in the 1910s after a failed revolution in his home country sent him packing, started out with the role on stage, and later, when Universal Pictures picked it up for an English-language movie adaptation, took the character to screen. To call the 1931 Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) iconic hardly does it justice; even though it’s a movie plagued by wheezing and dated stylistic choices by today’s standards, it’s still just the mark against which all other Draculas are measured. Lugosi embodies this role in a way that I’m not sure I think anyone else totally has, at least in this movie.
But in all honesty – does he? The Dracula that Lugosi plays in attractive, charming, even suave; that sensual silk cape, those wry mannerisms, his wit, his smarts. Dracula, in both Nosferatu and the original novel, is physically repulsive – he’s monstrous, disgusting, obviously inhuman. Lugosi’s just…isn’t. He’s brilliant in the role that he has, but I’m not convinced it’s entirely faithful to the Dracula of the book. And yet, he has endured as perhaps the most influential and iconic version of the Count to date. So what is it about this version that has made it so enduring?
Sexy vampires is just an accepted part of vampire mythos these days. They suck your blood, kiss your neck, seduce you, feast on you, all for their own pleasure; it’s sadistic, masochistic from the point of view of the victim, and addictive in its delicious darkness. While Lugosi’s Dracula is a movie that seems exceptionally tame by modern standards, it was one of the few movies of the early Hollywood years that escaped censorship under the shortly-incoming Hays Code; while there’s not a huge amount that was cut in re-releases of the movie after the Code was introduced, the movie still seems to drip with this suggestive, almost anachronistic sexuality.
In the excellent Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Aubrech suggests that each generation gets the vampire story that they need: vampires represent different fears, fascinations, obsessions, and addictions in various adaptations depending on the culture that surrounds them. And there’s no doubt that Lugosi’s Dracula, as the first major horror movie released with dialogue as a “talky” (as opposed to a silent film), reflected a society that wanted to explore the new angles of just what this story could bring.
Roger Ebert, in a 90s retrospective on the 1931 Dracula, wrote that “…the vampire’s attack is not specifically sexual, but in drinking the blood of his victims he is engaged in the most intimate of embraces…”, and I think this is the part that really defines Lugosi and Browning’s take on the character as a whole. The Count is upgraded into a confident, sometimes witty, and downright almost eligible (apart from the, you know, blood-drinking) bachelor in Universal’s interpretation of the movie; while Dracula as a story always had sexual overtones, this was the first movie in which the Count himself embodies a level of era-appropriate hotness and glamour.
And the sequels which followed this 1931 movie continue that trend (even if Lugosi was only in one of them): Dracula’s Daughter, a direct sequel to the 1931 movie, is a scandalously forthright lesbian metaphor that’s widely considered one of the first major queer horror movies, and John Carradine’s overtaking of the role from Lugosi in other movies in the same franchise focused on a more human, less monstrous, and most importantly, more attractive version of Dracula than the ones that had come before.
Lugosi’s Dracula is a fascinating film, because it really did pretty much define Dracula for the decades that followed: it was with Browning and Lugosi that Dracula turned from monster into Great Big Ride in almost every version that was to come. It might not be an entirely accurate adaptation of the character from the book, but looking back, it feels as iconic as it does because of how obvious its long-reaching influence has been. Lugosi embodies this version of Dracula so well because he damn near created it, and that’s what makes this 1931 version as fascinating and compelling as it is.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Bela Lugosi.com)