The Top 5 Best Bela Lugosi Performances
3.) The Black Cat (1934)
Another loose adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, as in there is NOTHING to link these two other than a black cat being present and… that’s about it. As far as Poe stories go it is a disturbing story to read, like even by today’s standards it is unnerving and almost makes you feel unclean by just reading it. The film is also for its time very disturbing and even by today’s standards touches on themes and ideas most wouldn’t dare. It’s about a newly wed couple on a train for their honeymoon. Due to it being full they share their cabin with an odd man named Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) who seems to be very troubled, but is headed in the same direction so they also share a carriage once they get off the train. En route the carriage crashes and they must seek shelter in the very mansion Werdegast is headed to. It turns out to be the home of a famous architect Poelzig (Boris Karloff) who is secretly a Devil worshiper, and the man who sent Werdegast to a Siberian war prison just so he could take his wife. Werdegast is there to kill him and rescue his daughter who Poelzig has taken as his new wife. Poelzig is a master strategist and begins almost instantly playing a figurative chess game, turning the others against him. Werdegast does what he can to keep the innocent couple out of danger and is also the primary reason he doesn’t start an all out attack on Poelzig. It all ends with Poelzig revealing to Werdegast his daughter to be dead, this was one step too far as Werdegast snaps and SKINS POELZIG ALIVE. Yes this movie from the 30s deals with Satan worship, necrophilia and flaying living people.
What makes this so great is how sympathetic Bela Lugosi is in his portrayal. He was most famous for playing villains with good reason, he was great at it. Still it’s nice to seem him play completely against type, but the way the story is constructed still allows him to go to the dark places we love seeing him in. If there’s any flaw it would be his over-the-top reaction to seeing black cats though I suspect that was more from direction than his actual performance. Now this many be an unpopular opinion, but I think this would make for an excellent remake. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one of those with an extremely strong foundation. All they have to do for it to be good would to just fix some of those 30s films type mistakes which could be easy enough. But honestly I think it’s more that a remake has the potential to make a GREAT film. Go further with the darkness, go further with the idea of these two men who want to just rip each other to shreds but with the innocent bystanders must fight in a battle of wits, go further with the idea of introducing this sad character and watch the desire for revenge turn him into just as much of a monster as Poelzig, completely losing himself to the darkness by the end. God, how much would I want to see that.
2.) Dracula (1931)
The one that started it all, without this film no classic Universal monster series. I think we all know the plot so I won’t bother recapping it. I will say that despite its importance it’s actually a film I don’t much care for. It’s way too slow, not helped at all by a total lack of musical score. Or any character not named Dracula, Renfield, or Van Helsing being unbelievably boring. It’s not a film that aged well despite what it began. However, I will admit each time I watch it I do enjoy it more. Not enough to like it, but it’s a much easier sit for me now. However, the reason this film endures and why it’s on this list is of course Count Dracula himself. What can be said that hasn’t already been said by countless before? He IS Dracula, you may like Sir Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella, Luke Evans or any of the other actors better but there is no debating who is the iconic one. Ask ANYONE to do a Dracula impression and they’ll be imitating Bela Lugosi. Everyone who plays the count is in somewhat reflective of Lugosi’s version in how much they’re trying to or not trying to be like him.
Something most don’t realize is that he only played Dracula TWICE in his whole career. Sure on stage he played him a lot and in film many of his roles were basically Dracula in everything but name, but as actually playing the true Dracula on film only twice. However, even in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” Lugosi still plays it completely seriously and shows he could have done great in the actual sequels they made without him. If you’re curious there is a version on some of the DVD’s that includes a new score by Phillip Glass. It’s interesting and a cool idea, but the problem is that it doesn’t sound like a score that would have existed at that time. So pick your poison, no score or an inappropriate one. Also many will try to convince you that the Spanish language version is superior, it’s certainly fascinating to see new scenes with new actors with all sorts of different angles on the same sets. However, personally I found it to be even more dull than the English version. It also doesn’t help that the Spanish actor playing Dracula has NOTHING on Bela Lugosi. He’s so great as Dracula you may even be wondering why he doesn’t have the top spot, let me explain in the last entry.
1.) Son of Frankenstein
Now I have to admit I don’t like “Frankenstein” (1931) or “Bride of Frankenstein” by James Whale. I know they’re considered classics, but there’s just something about them that always rubbed me the wrong way aside from Boris Karloff. So I wasn’t expecting much going into the third film, but lo and behold it ends up being the best which is interesting as I see a number of fans being very harsh on it for not following continuity. Yes in a Universal Monsters film fans complain about continuity. If you watch you’ll notice “Young Frankenstein” actually took more from this film than the other two. In fact, it may make it hard to take one character seriously anymore as he was parodied so perfectly with Inspector Kemp; though honestly it still works for me. The story is Wolf Frankenstein (the son of Frankenstein) returns to his father’s home to restore his family’s reputation, but the villagers are none too trusting. While surveying the ruins of his father’s lab he meets a strange hermit, Ygor.
He’s a blacksmith who was arrested for grave robbing and sentenced to be hung by the elders of the town. Ygor takes Wolf to see the body of the Monster. Unfortunately he’s in a coma from an accident that destroyed all the intelligence gained in the last films. Wolf revives him and Ygor (who is the monster’s only friend) begins using him to murder all of the elders who sentenced him to death. Wolf must figure out how to stop them while also not letting the Inspector arrest him. Even though the series is about the Monster the REAL villain of his film is actually Ygor. What makes his performance so great is how polar opposite it is to Lugosi’s iconic role of Dracula. There is nothing suave or likeable about Ygor. What’s funny is what this character has turned into in pop culture. Ygor the doctor’s assistant is now often a tragic figure, but in this film there is NOTHING sympathetic about him. He is using a mentally challenged person for his own revenge. Plus there he’s just so gleefully evil with some wonderfully macabre lines like “This is place of the dead. We’re all dead here.” “8 men say Ygor hang, now 8 men… dead!” Which does allow the monster himself to remain sympathetic as he can’t even fully understand what he’s involved with which just makes Ygor all the more evil.
Now because I have nowhere else to put this here’s something interesting I noticed about the man. When it comes to the most famous of Classic Universal Monsters it all comes back to him…Count Dracula, as we just discussed.
The Frankenstein Monster, yes Boris Karloff gave the best performance, but when someone imitates the monster they out stretch their arms like how Lugosi did in “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man” (Some even do that with the Mummy as well even though he didn’t have anything to do with “The Mummy” films). Bela Lugosi created the iconic Frankenstein/Mummy walk.
As for Ygor, it seems you can’t portray Dr Frankenstein without some sort of assistant (normally a hunchback) despite the fact he worked solo in the novel. In the classic 1931 film there was Fritz who we base this type of character off of, however most don’t know that because we all call him Ygor. I’m not sure why as the two have almost nothing in common. I think it’s because Lugosi so knocked it out of the park with his performance that people wanted it more directly connected to the overall franchise. Also, let’s not forget that he plays the werewolf that bit Larry Talbot in “The Wolf Man” thus passing on the curse and creating yet another famous monster.
So yes, while it is sad that his career was shat on by the studios during most of his lifetime, his contributions to pop culture outweighs that. When you think about it, that is something most other actors would give anything for. Bravo Mr. Lugosi, take a bow.