Bela Lugosi is the fallen Horror Star. In the many decades since his sad death, Lugosi’s name has almost become a byword for an actor who is hopelessly typecast and whose career ends in dismal failure.
Still despite this he was unquestionably one of the best actors of his generation and possessed an incredible range and charisma few actors could ever even dream of. Though sadly his typecasting problem meant that he could never quite show off his range that often, his presence on screen nevertheless even when he was given the smallest and most thankless of roles (which sadly was often quite a lot in his later career) was still always immense. He also made a massive impact on popular culture with his performances of iconic characters like Dracula and Iygor. Even today the image we have of the Transylvannian bloodsucker comes largely from Lugosi (and also Christopher Lee).
In this list I have compiled what I believe are Lugosi’s ten greatest performances though feel free to tell me what yours are in the comments below.
10/ Joseph/The Body Snatcher
Now this was sadly one of Lugosi’s smallest and blandest roles. He plays a minor character who attempts to blackmail the real villain of the movie played by Boris Karloff only to be smothered to death by him part way through. Now you might be wondering why I have included this if its one of Lugosi’s lesser roles. Well I have included as despite the fact that Lugosi was given such a small, boring role he still gave it his all. He treated “Joseph the murder victim” with as much seriousness and enthusiasm as Count Dracula himself. This was one way I always preferred Lugosi to Karloff as much as I love Karloff I do think that sometimes when he felt the script was beneath him Karloff could phone it in somewhat. Lugosi however was to me at least like Peter Cushing in that he never ever phoned it in regardless of how small the role or how bad the film was. No role better demonstrates this for me than Joseph. When Karloff and Lugosi are on the screen together for the last time both in the film and overall Lugosi despite having the worse role of the two of them still holds his own against Karloff as much as he did in “The Black Cat”.
9/ Murderer Legendre/ White Zombie
The first ever full length Zombie movie, White Zombie is overall a mixed bag. It actually has not a bad story and direction, but the acting with the exception of Lugosi is sadly quite poor. Fortunately Lugosi’s electrifying performance as one of Horror’s most memorable villains the zombie creator and Voodoo master Legendre more than makes up for it and in my opinion elevates this movie into a minor classic.
8/ Dr Felix Bennet/ The Invisible Ray
One of Lugosi’s few good guy roles, Lugosi triumphs as a genuinely sympathetic and likable character and its such a shame he was never given the chance to play these types of roles more often. Eevn the few other times he got to play a heroic characters they were often anti heroes such as in “The Black Cat”. Once again Lugosi was given the short end of the deal in this collaboration with Karloff as his role is still smaller than Karloffs, but once again he holds his own against him. Of course it was not Karloff’s fault that Lugosi ended up getting the smaller roles. Karloff and Basil Rathbone even made sure during the filming of Son of Frankenstein that Lugosi was given equal pay when the studio tried to cheat him. Though Lugosi undoubtedly did get jealous of Karloff’s long and successful career (though he never ever said so in either interviews or in real life to those who knew him) by all accounts he and Karloff had a very amicable and friendly working relationship with Karloff even later stating after Lugosi’s death “poor Bela he was worth a hell of a lot more than what he got”. The famous scene in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” where Lugosi screams and calls Karloff a cock sucker when someone mentions this very film is complete fabrication.
7/ Dr Mirakle/ Murders in the Rue Morgue
This was the movie that killed Lugosi’s career at Universal. Fortunately it is now regarded as a cult classic. The role was not that hard a one for Lugosi. An evil, over the top villain who trains an ape to murder people, but still it is a very memorable performance nonetheless. This would be the movie that would typecast Lugosi as playing mad scientists as much as Dracula had typecast him for playing Vampires.
6/ Sayer of the Law The Island of Lost Souls
This was a very unusual performance from Lugosi. This is more the type of role you would have expected Boris Karloff to play as like the Frankestein’s monster not only is it a very make up heavy role, but it is also more of a misunderstood victim like the Frankenstein’s Monster too. Lugosi’s characters generally tended to be more alluring and charming out and out villains like Dracula. However despite this Lugosi does every bit as well with this role as Karloff or anyone else ever would. He is able to make the Sayer of Law seem both frightening yet pitiful at the same time.
5/ Dr Vitus Werdegast
Lugosi’s most memorable heroic role, Werdegast is actually more of an anti hero in fact he was originally intended to be the villain in the original script. The character certainly isn’t your standard hero even in the finished film, still he is nevertheless obviously the one you are supposed to root for when he goes up against Boris Karloff’s character Poelzig a satan worshipper who murdered and then molested and embalmed Werdegast’s wife and kept her corpse as a trophy alongside the other young women he had done this too. The Black Cat was such a great film for both Lugosi and Karloff fans as it really gave both men a chance to play something different in Lugosi’s case a hero, Karloff’s a totally unsympathetic villain. By far and away the highlight of both Lugosi’s performance and of the film overall and even Lugosi and Karloff’s partnership is the final moment when Lugosi’s character gets his revenge and chains Karloff’s Poelzig up, only to flay him alive. Lugosi absolutely relishes this moment declaring that he is going to “Fayr the skin” from Poelzig’s body. Even though we only see the shadow it is still incredibly effective as we hear Poelzig scream and beg for mercy whilst Werdegast simply says with relish “How does it feel to hang on your own embalming wrack!!!”. This movie was the first to pair Lugosi and Karloff together. They appeared in 8 films in total and also even once sung together.
Don’t believe me here it is
4/ Dr Orloff/The Dark Eyes Of London
This is by far and away one of Lugosi’s most menacing performances. The character of Dr Orloff is not too dissimilar to Dr Mirakle. Both are deranged scientists who commit a series of murders with the aid of a brutish servant. However Orloff I found to be far more menacing personally and whilst “The Dark Eyes of London” is often sadly overlooked I would still say that it ranks among Lugosi’s best villainous performances.
3/ Dracula/ Dracula (1931)/ Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein
I know what you’re thinking how can I not have this at number 1 am I just trying to be different. Well no that isn’t the reason as much as I love Lugosi’s Dracula do find the following two performances to be much better, however I would agree that obviously Dracula is the role Lugosi is most remembered for. Dracula was both a blessing and a curse for Lugosi. On the one hand it did typecast him for the rest of his career, but on the other with Dracula Lugosi achieved what few other actors have achieved immortality. The image of Dracula comes largely from Bela Lugosi’s performance. Elements of how we see Dracula also come from Christopher Lee’s performance n the Hammer films such as the fangs (which Lugosi lacked), the massive height, Dracula’s physical strength and Dracula’s seductive nature. However many other elements come from Lugosi. The cape, the penguin suit, the black hair and the thick Hungarian accent. The idea of Dracula as a charming, yet somewhat sinister even otherworldly gentleman also comes from Lugosi. Finally whilst Lugosi’s Dracula did not actively seduce his victims like Lee’s later would Lugosi was nevertheless the one who was responsible for Dracula and indeed Vampires in general becoming more attractive, alluring villains. In Stokers novel Dracula is a hideous, repulsive old man who gets younger the more blood he drinks, but who never becomes attractive. Lugosi on the other hand actually became a sex symbol through Dracula even at one point despite being a man in his 50’s receiving more fanmail from young women than Clark Gable! Lugosi only played Dracula on two occasions on film, though he played the role many more times on stage and he also played other Vampiric characters too such as in the movie “The Return of the Vampire” which marked the first time a Vampire and a Werewolf appeared in a movie together. Still despite this he would always be associated with the character. Understandably Lugosi came to resent always being seen as “the boogeyman”, but nevertheless he also did always appreciate the fame it brought him and we can only hope that in his final years Lugosi realized what an enduring legacy he had with Dracula. The fact that he was buried in his Dracula cape per his family’s request suggests he at least came to terms with the fact that he was to be forever associated with this iconic character.
2/ Ygor/ The Son of Frankenstein/ The Ghost of Frankenstein
Lugosi’s other most famous creation was the twisted hunchback Iygor in two entries of the Universal Frankenstein film series. Iygor unlike Dracula was most definitely not a charming or alluring character. He was an ugly, deformed, hateful character who nevertheless was able to come across as quite likable to the audience due to his dark, twisted sense of humour. Whilst Ygor is primarily a villain at the same time Lugosi is able to inject a certain pathos into the character and is even able to make us feel sympathy for him such as in “Ghost of Frankenstein” when Ygor is told that the monster his only friend in the entire world will be taken away from him. Lugosi and Karloff play off of each other brilliantly in “The Son of Frankenstein” managing to show us how Ygor and the monster truly love each other which helps to make both characters seem somewhat more human. Technically Lugosi played Ygor three times as at the end of “Ghost of Frankenstein” Ygor’s brain is put into the monsters body and in the follow up “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” Lugosi plays the Monster itself. Sadly his performance in this film was compromised as so much of it was edited out (including all of his lines of dialogue). I think had they not edited Lugosi’s performance then it would have been excellent, as it would have been different to Karloff’s or anyone else before him as with Ygors brain the Monster would have been a lot more sly and ruthless. The only little trace of this performance I feel is left in the final cut is when the Monsters strength is restored and we see Lugosi as the monster smile. In this moment we can see how Ygor is relishing in the chance to now finally use the monsters power for his own ends In this moment the Monster is truly a monster. Lugosi’s best performance as Ygor was definitely in “Son of Frankenstein” . In this movie Lugosi manages to steal the show from both Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff which is no mean feat never mind when Karloff is playing his most iconic role as the Frankenstein’s monster.
1/Dr Richard Vollin/ The Raven
My favorite Lugosi performance. Vollin is not the most nuanced character, but he is nevertheless tremendous fun and it is for that reason alone that he is my favorite Lugosi character. “The Raven” was another Lugosi, Karloff pairing and unlike “The Black Cat” which attempted to cast them both in different types of roles “The Raven” cast them in exactly the type of parts that they were both known for with Lugosi as the suave, charming villain and Karloff as the deformed, misunderstood outcast (Karloff at one point even performs the Frankenstein monsters growl). Vollin is a deranged Edgar Allan Poe fan who attempts to get revenge on a woman who rejected him and her loved ones and family by placing them all in his home made torture devices inspired by the work of Poe. Vollin is a completely over the top, almost pantomime villain, but Lugosi manages to make it and work and makes Vollin seem both entertaining and genuinely menacing too. Once again Lugosi completely steals the show from Karloff, though to be fair this time Karloff had the smaller role (yet was still credited first). Vollin is one of my favorite horror movie villains, he is just pure unmitigated evil with no shades of Grey whatsoever, in fact he is possibly the most evil character Lugosi has ever played even more so than Dracula. Sadly “The Raven” was not that well received when it was first shown. There was in fact a huge amount of criticism directed the levels of violence in the movie, but nowadays it is regarded as a cult classic, with James Rolfe of “The Angry Video Game Nerd” and “Cinemasscre” fame also citing this as his favorite Lugosi performance.