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Bela Lugosi's 5 Greatest Monsters

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Mabel Livingstone

Bela Lugosi's 5 Greatest Monsters

 

Bela Lugosi didn't become one of the great legends of Hollywood's golden age by playing heroes. It was monsters – bloodthirsty, twisted and sometimes tragic monsters – that made him famous.

It began when Lugosi played Dracula in 1931. His Dracula was the first film to legally adapt Bram Stoker's classic gothic tale of terror, and his interpretation of the original vampire is one that still reverberates throughout horror fiction.

Dracula was far from the only monster he played, however. So chilling was his portrayal of the bloodsucker that he was offered roles in movie after movie – and only occasionally did he play the good guy. Instead, he was typecast as the villain, a situation that distressed the actor but at the same time cemented his place in cinematic history.

Below, we explore five of Lugosi's best monster-movie roles.

The Raven – Mad surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin

This 1935 thriller was one of several in which Lugosi starred along with Boris Karloff, his rival in the horror movie world who often received top billing – as he did in The Raven, even though Lugosi was the film's star. Both actors played awful men who were obsessed with torture in a plot that was simply too much for audiences of the time. It tanked at the box office and was one of a number of shocking films that led to a temporary ban on horror movies in England. Viewed from today's perspective, it's fairly mild, and it's easy to see that Lugosi excelled at bringing a touch of madness to his character.

Son of Frankenstein – Ygor

In 1939's Son of Frankenstein, Lugosi and Karloff were together again, with Karloff playing the monster and Lugosi playing the equally monstrous assistant, Ygor. Lugosi's Ygor wasn't a monster because of his twisted appearance, but rather because of his actions – in this take on the Frankenstein story, it's Ygor who is the antagonist, directing Frankenstein's monster to kill. Lugosi's sleek, debonair look from Dracula is altered here: He's shaggily bearded, suiting the part of the macabre assistant. In a year when horror movies were not particularly popular and early horror stalwart Universal Studios was in a slump, the success of Son of Frankenstein helped revive both genre and studio.

White Zombie – Voodoo master Murder Legendre

This legendary 1932 horror movie gave its name to Rob Zombie's heavy-metal band, but before that, it was the first feature-length zombie film, starring Lugosi as the dastardly voodoo master who turns a lovely young woman into a zombie, later ordering her to kill her fiancé. Though the movie was panned at the time – with the occasional piece of praise reserved for superstar Lugosi's performance – it has since entered into canon as the grandfather of the many popular zombie movies that would follow it.

The Devil Bat – Evil chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers

Lugosi's career had stalled in the late 1930s, but by 1940, he felt ready for a comeback, taking on another mad scientist role in The Devil Bat. Here, he was a chemist for a cosmetics company who was bent on exacting revenge on his employers for his low pay. Of course, he goes the route most people would take: He breeds a strain of giant killer bats. The Devil Bats were rubbery, unconvincing props and the plot a little goofy, but Lugosi himself was in fine form as the sort of human monster he played so well.

Dracula – The Prince of Darkness himself

We saved the best for last, the prototype for so many horror films that have come in the decades since its release: Dracula. Lugosi was the original Dracula, profoundly shaping our vision of what the prototypical vampire looked and sounded like. He moved to the role from a stage production of the play on which it was based, and he wasn't actually the producer's top choice for the role – in fact, he wasn't anywhere near the top. But Lugosi loved the role, and he lobbied hard for it. Ultimately, it may have been his willingness to accept a low salary that won him the part, but can we imagine the first Dracula starring anyone else? A contemporary review from Variety magazine agreed: "It is difficult to think of anybody who could quite match the performance in the vampire part of Bela Lugosi, even to the faint flavor of foreign speech that fits so neatly." It was the role that set the stage for his career, and though it opened him up to the typecasting that would plague him until his death, it was only because Lugosi played Dracula so well that we wanted to see him play monsters forever.