FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS: BELA LUGOSI vs. CHRISTOPHER LEE
WHO IS THE ULTIMATE MOVIE DRACULA?
With MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES
(The Scene: The Cinema Knife Fight studio. MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES are seated across from each other on stools. Behind them are movie stills featuring Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as Dracula, as well as photos of Count Chocula and The Count from Sesame Street.)
MA: Welcome back to Friday Night Knife Fights, as L.L. and I continue our discussion of which actor, Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, was the ultimate movie Dracula. So far, we looked at their initial film performances as Dracula. I thought Lugosi was slightly better than Lee.
LS: And I thought the same thing, though as I said last time, it was a tough decision because Lee’s no slouch, and both of their initial performances were terrific.
MA: Okay, time for the next question.
Of the two, who fared best in the sequels? I’ll get us started by answering my own question.
I would have to say that Lee fared better in the sequels, if only because he actually appeared in sequels. Lugosi only played Dracula in the movies twice, and the second time was in the comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). He played a vampire in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944), and while his performances in all of these movies were topnotch, I still give the edge to Lee, since he was actually playing Dracula in his movies.
Plus, thanks to Hammer Films’ interest in the character— and Hammer was interested in Dracula because the Christopher Lee Dracula movies consistently made the most money for the studio—Lee got to play Dracula in six sequels after HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
Though it’s not a sequel, Lee also played Dracula in the non-Hammer movie COUNT DRACULA (1970), directed by Jess Franco, as well.
So, by sheer numbers alone, I give the edge to Lee.
Christopher Lee portrayed Dracula as a more animalistic, savage creature.
LS: Unlike the Frankenstein monster and Mummy franchises (and later the Wolfman), Universal didn’t make any more Dracula movies (they did however, make a sequel to the original Dracula in 1936, called DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, but Lugosi is nowhere to be found except in a brief scene at the beginning, where his daughter burns his corpse).
MA: Don’t forget SON OF DRACULA (1943) starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Count Alucard….
LS: Yeah, that’s a funny one. Count “Alucard.” It’s Dracula spelled backwards. What a clever ruse (laughs)
MA: And of course there was both HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), in which John Carradine played Dracula, so Universal did in fact make more Dracula movies.
LS: You’re right about SON OF DRACULA. It’s like Lon Chaney Jr. played every monster in the Universal cannon to see which ones he could turn into a franchise (the answers: Larry Talbot and Kharis the Mummy). As for the HOUSE movies, I always considered them almost a subgenre in themselves, since they were more concerned in packing in as many monsters as they could, rather than focusing on just one.
Besides, we’re talking about Lugosi here, and they didn’t make any more Dracula movies starring Bela, except as you said, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and with the exception of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, none of these other Universal Dracula movies were direct sequels to the Lugosi original.
So, the only other time Lugosi was able to play his most famous role again was in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, which is partly why that comedy is such a revered classic.
Lugosi’s other vampire roles tended to be disappointing. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (a remake of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT from 1927) is okay, but in the end the vampires are really actors in disguise, which is always a big letdown.
MA: It’s a REALLY big letdown. I don’t like that part of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE at all. It nearly ruins the movie.
Bela Lugosi portrayed Dracula on stage, as well as playing the role in the 1931 film version.
LS: Let’s face it. It’s not a great movie.
MA: Lugosi’s not in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE all that much, but when he’s in it, he’s good. His performance here actually reminds me a little bit of Christopher Lee, since Lugosi doesn’t talk much in this one and actually gets to run around a bit, appear menacingly outside windows, and generally look scary. But Lee does “scary” better.
LS: RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944) is better, and features a werewolf in it, too, but never again did Lugosi reach the greatness he achieved in the original DRACULA, mostly because the scripts in his other movies just aren’t up to par.
MA: Yeah, I agree, although I like RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE a lot. Lugosi speaks lots of dialogue in this one, and he’s close to his earlier form as DRACULA, though not quite.
LS: You can’t really compare the two films. The original DRACULA was a work of art. RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE was a fun B-movie. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Lugosi is okay in RETURN, but it’s nowhere close to his performance in the original DRACULA.
MA: I don’t know about that. I think Lugosi is almost if not just as good in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE as he is in DRACULA, but you’re right about not being able to compare the two movies. DRACULA is a much better movie than RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, but I really enjoy Lugosi in both of them.
LS: As for Lee, his Dracula sequels are much more satisfying. They’re not all great, but at least they have a level of quality that Lugosi’s other vampire roles did not. So, I go with Lee in terms of who fared better in the sequels.
MA: We’re in agreement then. Must be a full moon or something. Moving right along.
Next question: who’s scarier as Dracula? Lugosi or Lee?
LS: Since Lee played Dracula as a much more menacing, animalistic creature, I think his version is scarier, hands down. Although Lugosi was really good at showing the duality of his character, at times charming and, at other times, almost as menacing as Lee.
MA: I’ve always thought that Lee was way scarier than Lugosi as Dracula, but I don’t think the margin is quite as wide as I used to believe.
Lee, with his athleticism and quick cat-like movements, made for a very violent and brutal Dracula.
Lugosi, on the other hand, possessed none of the action-oriented characteristics which Lee so masterfully displayed. Lugosi brought his Dracula to life strictly through the strength of his acting, and the fear instilled by his Dracula is much more subtle and hypnotic.
We fear Lugosi’s Dracula will cast a spell on us, put us in a trance to do his bidding, or hypnotize us into inaction while he creeps up to our bed and drinks our blood. We fear Lee’s Dracula will leap over a table, grab us by the arm, pin us down and bite us violently on the neck, blood dripping to the floor as he drinks his fill.
They’re both scary, and while neither Lee nor Lugosi ever gave me nightmares as Dracula, if I had to pick one, I’d go with Lee. His in-your-face style is scarier.
Okay, of the two’s various portrayals of vampires, which one has delivered the weakest performance? And why?
LS: After the triumph of DRACULA (a role he first performed on stage), Lugosi’s career gradually went downhill. There are a few highlights, like the first two movies he made where he “teamed up” with Boris Karloff – THE BLACK CAT (1934) and THE RAVEN (1935).
MA: I love THE BLACK CAT and THE RAVEN.
LS: But by the late 1930s and the 40s, his career was in a bad way.
MA: What? You didn’t like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE? (laughs).
LS: The scripts just weren’t very good, horror was slowly dying out as a popular genre due to the real horrors of WWII, (although horror would be revived in the 1950s by Hammer Studios, ironically enough). It also didn’t help that Lugosi had a thick accent that made it difficult for him to avoid being typecast as foreign villains. The opportunities just weren’t there for him to have a more respectable acting career.
Lee, despite a few weak scripts, was able to maintain the quality of his vampire performances throughout his run as Dracula, and was always very effective in the role. I think he had a better time of it playing the character.
MA: When I asked the question, I was only thinking of their performances as Dracula, or as a vampire. I know Lugosi made a lot of notoriously awful movies, but in terms of vampire performances, do you still think Lugosi delivered the weaker performance?
LS: My answer covered all his movies, even his vampire ones. Besides, we already talked about his other vampire movies in depth. Do we really need to talk about them again?
MA: I’m just saying I asked about his vampire performances, that’s all. Okay, good enough. My turn to answer.
Lugosi only played Dracula once more in the movies, and to his credit, his performance as the Count in the comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN doesn’t miss a beat. He plays it straight, letting Bud Abbott and Lou Costello get the laughs. And as we already discussed, he also delivers a fine performance in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE.
The odds are against Lee, since he played Dracula more—seven times for Hammer Films! I don’t think Lee ever gave a weak performance as Dracula, but there were moments where he wasn’t as effective.
For example, in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), a film I happen to like, I’ve always found Lee’s performance here a bit off, compared to his other Dracula portrayals. His Dracula seems uncharacteristically weaker here. One scene in particular, where Dracula battles the hero Charles in Castle Dracula, and Charles forms a cross with swords to fend off Dracula, Dracula’s response is very un-Lee like. He jumps away in fright.
It’s also the only Hammer Dracula where Lee doesn’t speak any lines, so this doesn’t help his case.
Lee’s performance in SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) is also different, although I don’t think I’d go so far as to categorize it as weak, but it does take some getting used to. Gone is the leaping and running around, as in this film, you never see Dracula enter or exit a room. He’s simply there one moment, gone the next, or a character’s alone in a room, and suddenly Dracula is there with him. I didn’t like this at first, but this and other parts of Lee’s performance have grown on me over the years. He also is extremely violent in SCARS (which is why it’s called SCARS OF DRACULA, I guess) as he whips, burns, and stabs his victims. Like I said, it’s not really a weaker performance, but it takes some getting used to.
LS: I love SCARS OF DRACULA. It’s one of my favorites of the series.
MA: You can make the case that his performances in the last two films in the series, DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) aren’t so hot, but these two films which take place in the 1970s have more problems than Christopher Lee. Still, in DRACULA AD 1972, he seems out of place and doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. Plus Lee’s performance here is hammier than usual. He’s almost a caricature of himself.
LS: He’s supposed to seem out of place in DRACULA A.D. 1972. He is an ancient aristocrat who suddenly finds himself in the world of 1972, complete with drug-taking hippies! Talk about culture shock!
MA: So, as to which one of the two delivered the weakest performance, I’d go with Lee for these moments, in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and DRACULA A.D. 1972 especially.
LS: I don’t think that’s fair. I like both of those.
MA: Well, it looks as if Round 2 of our Friday Night Knife Fight has gone to Christopher Lee, and since last week’s Round 1 went to Bela Lugosi, it looks like it will come down to our final segment before we have a winner.
So don’t forget to join us next Friday for the final segment of this month’s Friday Night Knife Fight where we’ll decide once and for all which one of these two actors is the ultimate movie DRACULA. See you then!
—END PART 2—
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares