“Listen to them…. the children of the night. What sweet music they make.” – Dracula
We’ve all been listening to the sweet movie music Dracula makes for over seven decades now in dozens of frightful films. The iconic role of Count Dracula, the vampire Lord of Transylvania has been played by more actors than you’d imagine, but who are the classics? Who do we keep watching over and over?
Bram Stoker’s 1890 novel may have been the first sure-fire way to start an entertainment franchise. When published, it was a best seller, and then turned into a stage play, which in turn was made into the 1931 Universal film of the evil Count’s adventures. Bela Lugosi played him on stage, and then snagged the film role with fangs sharpened for a history making cinema turn, which would forever influence generations of horror movie lovers along with actors who would also embody the charismatic Count Dracula.
Here now the greats who have slipped on the black cape.
Lugosi is Dracula.
It’s whom we conjure up when we think Dracula. No matter who else assumes the role, Lugosi isn’t only firmly etched in our minds, but his performance is the unforgettable version which appears on Halloween decorations, film collectibles, cereal boxes, even spoofs of Stoker’s blood sucking anti-hero. Indeed, long before the term became fashionable, Dracula may have been the first hero we loved to hate and sometimes found ourselves rooting for over the good guys.
Bela Lugosi’s career faltered after Dracula. He did work regularly after, but piercing eyes and a trademark Hungarian accent plagued him, making it hard to cast him as anything but strange characters. He played mad doctors, killers and all sorts of nasty creatures of the night after Dracula, but it’s the role of the tortured Transylvanian that we’ll always cherish and remember.
Lee’s cinematic Dracula is a lesson in understated acting.
He literally says no more than a few lines in all the films combined. His imposing height, severe features and silent, but deadly style of acting makes the Englishman’s interpretation of Dracula one of the most beloved to horror lovers. Lugosi may have captured Dracula’s eerie charm most ably, but Lee unquestionably gave the most royal and classy of the performances in his five Dracula movies. Lee, still quite active in movies today playing major roles in such epics as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, could probably still pull off another turn as Dracula better than actors half his age.
Langella’s Dracula personifies romance.
One of the only native born Americans to play the role in a major motion picture and like Bela Lugosi, Langella originated his performance on the stage, then was cast as the lead for the film. Bringing a smoky sensuality to the Count, many consider Langella’s turn as the most erotic embodiment of the Vampire King. Again the notion of cheering the anti-hero is fully evident here. When Dracula is on the run with his beloved, we find ourselves wishing he’d succeed in his escape. Director John Badham wanted to film Langella’s version in black & white, but the studio refused, so he settled on a “washed out” look which provides an older feel to the production.
Oldman’s Dracula achieves a perfect balance.
Like Christopher Lee, Oldman’s an Englishman, but where Lee’s vocal performance was sparse, Oldman’s mastery over accents is displayed here in full brilliant force. Oldman’s performance has grown on me, to where I now consider him the most entertaining of any Dracula. His performance is at once menacing and romantic, dangerous and vulnerable. When he lashes out at Jonathan Harker (Keannu Reeves) about his clan’s illustrious history, it’s stunningly powerful, but also poignant. When you see actual depictions of Vlad Tepes, the Transylvanian nobleman that Stoker based Dracula upon, Oldman’s look seems closest to historic documentation.
Max Schreck (Nosferatu 1922)
Predating Universal’s entry by nine years, this silent classic is awash in creepiness that most modern blockbusters only wish they could deliver. It’s a curious version of Dracula, because at the time a lawsuit was filed by the Bram Stoker estate for copyright infringement. The story is nearly identical, save the vampire is called Count Orlock. If you haven’t seen this gem, you must treat yourself to a truly nightmarish film. What it lacks in sound and visual FX, it more than makes up for in haunting cinematography, incredible make-up and convincing sets. Schreck, much like Lugosi, fully transforms into the character. We watch awestruck at the perfect, supernatural illusion before us.
Jack Palance (Dan Curtis’ Dracula 1974 TV Movie)
The recently departed Palance was one of Hollywood’s more solid actors. Clearly, as the famous Oscar telecast stunt proved when he did one-arm push-ups upon getting his award, he was entertaining on film and in real life. Palance donned the vampire cape for a TV movie produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker fame. Palance makes for an excellent, three-dimensional prince of darkness and this one is a must see for Dracula aficionados.
William Marshall (Blacula 1972)
This one isn’t Dracula – exactly.
Sadly, the title elicits chuckles or annoyed dismissals by the uninitiated, but this blaxploitation entry is one of the better vampire movies. Marshall was a Shakespearian trained actor and brings all of that old school theatrical authority and power to the role of Prince Mamuwalde, an African royal who’s doomed by a vengeful Count Dracula to become like himself – a thirsting thing for human blood. A sequel followed, “Scream, Blacula, Scream”, co-starring the incredible Pam Grier, so fans have two chances to savor William Marshall’s fantastic performance as Dracula’s “soul brother.”