Those who would doubt the impact of film on popular mythology would do well to look at Bela Lugosi’s performance in DRACULA. The film didn’t introduce the vampire to the world; by the time of its release in 1931, vampires had existed in various countries’ folklore for centuries. The Bram Stoker novel upon which the film was based was more than thirty years old, and had even already been adapted to the screen (more on that later). Yet the vast majority of what we think of today when we talk about bloodsuckers can be traced to that classic Universal production, and, more specifically, Lugosi.
On the most obvious level, Lugosi taught us how a vampire is “supposed” to look, sound, and act. In Stoker’s novel, the Count is described as an older gentleman with a long white mustache and an impeccable grasp of the English language – but that’s not what you picture when you picture Count Dracula. The widow’s peak, the smirk, the goofy “I vant to suck your blood” accent: all of that can be squarely traced back to Bela.
But there’s another archetype that can be traced back to Lugosi’s Count, one that’s perhaps even more pervasive today: the sexy vampire. While the phrase “Bela Lugosi, international sex symbol” sounds faintly ridiculous today, that’s pretty much exactly how he was received at the time. The endless typecasting as assorted ghouls, maniacs, and madmen obscures the fact that what made DRACULA a hit was that Lugosi DIDN’T seem like a monster; he was a suave, sophisticated gentleman, whose powers of hypnosis simply augmented his natural charm (true fact: before becoming the face of horror, Lugosi was a successful stage actor in his native Hungary, even playing Jesus in a successful passion play). Without Bela Lugosi, there would be no DARK SHADOWS, no Anne Rice, and certainly no TWILIGHT.
Compare this to the screen’s previous Dracula: Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s silent expressionist classic NOSFERATU (rather than seeking the permission of Stoker’s estate, Murnau attempted to evade copyright by changing all the names in his adaptation; it didn’t work, and the film was very nearly sued out of existence). Where Lugosi’s Dracula masks his evil tendencies with continental charm, Schreck’s “Count Orlok” never looks like anything other than an animated corpse who will tear your throat out at a moment’s notice. Sure, he fancies himself up when Renfield (er, “Hutter”) comes to visit, but even that ridiculous hat can’t distract from his rodent-like visage. Throughout the film, Schreck seems less like a man portraying a vampire, and more like a vampire trying to pass as human, and barely at that. It’s no coincidence that E. Elias Merhige’s SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, a fictionalized account of the filming of NOSFERATU, is based on that very premise.
Count Orlok is, in short, possibly the least sexy vampire ever to grace the screen – and yet, without Bela Lugosi’s treatment of the same character less than a decade later, he may have become the norm for screen vamps. He’s certainly more in keeping with the vampires of old, who were traditionally portrayed as shambling corpses with bloodstained mouths and long, gnarly fingernails. And it’s unlikely that Lugosi’s approach to the character would be shared by director Tod Browning’s first choice for the role: silent master of the macabre Lon Chaney, who died shortly before production began. Had Chaney gotten the part (and been given license to ply his own justly famous makeup talents), the modern image of the vampire would very likely be several shades more grotesque.
Whichever flavor you prefer – Original or Extra Smooth, as it were – you can catch both tonight at the Brattle, as a double feature which appropriately kicks off the theater’s BLOODSUCKING FREAKS series of classic vampire films. You’ll see a lot of favorites there over the next six days, from Christopher Lee and William Marshall to Chris Sarandon and Kiefer Sutherland, but it’s a good bet that they’d all look a little different if it weren’t for one creepy Hungarian.
DRACULA: 4:30 PM, 8:15 PM
NOSFERATU: 6:15 PM
Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)
$8 each / $12 for double feature