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Bela Lugosi Is Not Dead

Elaine Lennon examines ‘Dracula’ and the immortal Bela Lugosi

<I>I am Dracula.  I bid you welcome!<I>

If you’re a Bauhaus fan (the band, not the buildings) or a devotee of the oeuvre of that cinematic artiste manque forever known as Ed Wood, then doubtless you are acquainted with the name, if not the work, of Bela Lugosi – or Dracula, as we Children of the Night prefer to call him. 

Bram Stoker’s greatest creation may well have been inspired by childhood trips to Kinnity, a strange little village in the mountains of Laois where in later years Hollywood director Rex Ingram would grow up.  Kinnity Castle, now revitalised as a thriving hotel, is a perfect Gothic confection, with the gargoyle-encrusted lodge and leaded windows to prove it, in case you’re too nervous to approach it from the road on a darkening winter evening.  The surrounding landscape is nothing less than Hammeresque in scope and with a little agitation and subterfuge, voila! Transylvania.

When Universal acquired this most infamous literary property it had already been a long-running theatrical success, adapted for the stage by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. An earlier unauthorised version had been filmed in Germany by F.W. Murnau with the unforgettable Max Schreck but the Stoker estate was not happy with it.

Though I would never trust Halliwell in any matter, filmic or otherwise, I do like his summation of the legendary plot:  ‘a Transylvanian vampire count gets his comeuppance in Yorkshire.’ Pithy, eh?

Universal Studios, run by Junior Laemmle (because Uncle Carl Laemmle liked to keep things in the family, as the Hollywood rhyme goes), was making a concerted attempt to create product on a shoestring and keep the overheads down in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.  Taking a leaf out of their sister studio’s book in Germany, he decided to make a series of low-budget, atmospheric films which would be shot in half-light and therefore  not require the usual jolts of expensive electricity.  The play was entrusted to scenarist Garret Fort for adaptation and to Tod Browning to direct. Browning’s preferred star was his friend Lon Chaney, but as Chaney was seriously ill the role went to Lugosi, who had played it successfully both on Broadway on a nationwide tour of the States.

Born in Transylvania in the Hungarian town of Lugos, as Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko October 20, 1882, Lugosi’s father was vice president of the state bank of Lugos. Bela was the youngest of five children. He became a Shakespearean actor, although he never quite shook that accent.

<I>Dracula<I>’s reputation stems primarily from the fact that it was the first horror talkie;  everything about it was fresh, even the rubber bats that dangled uselessly from the ceilings. Slow, stagey, hilarious for so many wrong reasons, it is however the mother of horror cinema, inspiring legions of imitations and homages. Despite its creaky pace and technical shortcomings, it’s eerily compelling, especially in the opening sequences – helped along by Karl Freund’s wonderful cinematography and a commanding use of Tchaikovsky. Never mind that all the bites and stakings take place offscreen.

Lugosi comes into his own, smooth, sinuous and seductive as he slinks his way through the dialogue with an almost sincere knowing wink at the camera. No fangs for him; he’s just a big hunk of love. As Michael R. Pitts says in <I>Horror Film Stars<I>, “No one actor ever exuded a greater aura of mystery than Bela Lugosi. With his tall stature, dark handsome features, piercing eyes and well-modulated Hungarian accent, the actor was very able to project the image of suave evilness… There can be no doubt that Bela Lugosi possessed more personal charisma than did his other counterparts, both before and since, in the horror film field, and while most of his genre outings were low-quality efforts, the actor himself is perhaps the most readily identifiable performer ever to make horror pictures.”

With a similarly impressive supporting cast – has there ever been a better Van Helsing than Edward Van Sloan? While Dwight Frye is superb as Renfield – it doesn’t actually look as good as the word-for-word Spanish-language version that was shot on the same sets at night time.

Lugosi was already fifty years old when the film was made and he became inextricably linked with the genre.  He died 16 August 1956 (Elvis would die the same day 21 years later) after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in the cape that made him famous (so was Elvis.  Believe it – or not?). His later career had been aided by the aforementioned Mr Wood, his thick Hungarian accent limiting him to play the villain. Lon Chaney, Jr. reckoned that <I>Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein<I> sabotaged the careers of The Wolfman, Dracula, and the Frankenstein monster. “For the first time, these three were in supporting roles and made to look foolish. After Costello got through, there was no interest in them at all.”
There remains, however,<I>Dracula<I>: the film that launched Universal as the house of horror, and Lugosi as its master.

@Writer:  Elaine Lennon

A restored print of <I>Dracula<I> is being screened at the National Concert Hall from 01 October.

Originally published on http://www.oceanfree.net

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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