Today marks what would have been the 135th birthday of the late, great Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who was born Oct. 20, 1882 and died Aug. 16, 1956. Lugosi, of course, is best known as the first actor to play Dracula (on both stage and screen), with his performance and image becoming one of the singular horror icons in all of pop culture history, second perhaps only to his rival Boris Karloff's turn as Frankenstein's monster.
But Dracula was both a blessing and a curse to Lugosi: He was permanently associated with both the role and the horror genre, often being passed over for the non-genre roles that he desperately sought later in his career. But even when working in horror or sci-fi, Lugosi managed to create a number of indelible performances, and even when the movies themselves were no better than low-budget B-level productions, he still stood out with his exotic charm, his otherworldly aura, and his imposing intensity.
In honor of this immortal actor on his birthday, and in the spirit of the Halloween season, here are our 10 favorite performances, ranked in reverse order. Most of the films, by the way, hold up as classics in their own right of the first truly great era of horror movies, thanks in no small part to the presence of the incomparable Bela Lugosi.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
Although Lugosi was said to be quite envious of the greater success enjoyed by his fellow horror icon Boris Karloff, the pair nevertheless made eight movies together -- although Karloff arguably got most of the juicier roles. This Gothic sci-fi tale actually gave Lugosi the chance to play a pretty decent guy for a change in Dr. Felix Benet, a colleague and rival of Karloff's Dr. Janos Rukh.
The frequent theme of movies from this era -- that there were some things in the universe that man was meant to leave alone -- is front and center here, as the two scientists grapple with a mysterious element that provides the power to both heal and kill. Lugosi is somewhat overshadowed by Karloff's showier role, but manages to display his ability to play more than just villains.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, this mad scientist yarn -- the second of the talkie era following 1931's Frankenstein -- was made as a sort of consolation prize: Its star, Lugosi, and its director, Robert Florey, were both originally hired for the latter film, but removed by Universal and given this instead. Lugosi plays the crazed Dr. Mirakle, who kidnaps and injects young women with blood from his supposedly talking gorilla in an attempt to create a mate for the beast. Yes, you read that right. The movies got into some pretty lurid corners before the Hays Production Code (a set of moral guidelines for the film business) really clamped down in 1934, and, in fact, this one was trimmed by nearly 20 minutes to remove some violence. Lugosi is wickedly over the top in this cult classic, although it ended his relationship with Universal at the time.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Lugosi got typecast as either a mad scientist or a vampire for much of his career after the success of Dracula, but he still managed to turn in mesmerizing performances even when given stock roles. This strange little film was directed by Tod Browning, who directed Lugosi in Dracula and also helmed the horror masterpiece Freaks (1932). Mark of the Vampire was a remake of Browning's silent London After Midnight (1927), which starred Lon Chaney and is one of the most sought after "lost" films of its era. Browning pours on the Gothic atmosphere thick in this update, as a village is seemingly terrorized by two bloodsuckers portrayed by Lugosi and 19-year-old Carol Borland (whose character set the template for female vampires to come, but who herself only made one more feature -- in 1983!). The movie ends up with an incredibly lame twist but still retains an eerie power.
The Raven (1935)
Yet another pairing of Lugosi and Karloff, with Lugosi as the villain this time and Karloff playing a deformed, misunderstood outcast in the vein of his Frankenstein monster. Although Karloff got top billing (which must have driven poor Bela nuts), Lugosi is clearly the lead as Dr. Vollin, whose obsession with all things Edgar Allan Poe has led him to fill his home with torture devices based on those in Poe's works. Karloff is a murderer on the run, whose face is purposely disfigured by Lugosi during an operation to alter his features. He is forced to aid the insane Vollin in his plan to enact vengeance on a local woman, her father, and her beau after the woman rejects him. Lugosi is in full command here, outshining even Karloff in his portrayal of pure, depraved evil.
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Lugosi played a small but memorable role in this first and best adaptation of H.G. Wells' macabre novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wearing heavy make-up to appear wolf-like, the actor plays the Sayer of the Law, the de facto leader of the animal-human hybrids the insane scientist Moreau (Charles Laughton) has been creating in his hidden jungle lair. Lugosi keeps the creatures in line by reciting Moreau's laws at them ("Are we not men?") but manages to convey the pain and horror in which these creatures seem to permanently exist, as well. He's scary, tormented, and pitiful all at once in his limited screen time.
The Dark Eyes of London (1939)
White Zombie (1932)
How can you not love a Lugosi movie in which he plays a character named Murder? That's right, Bela portrays a voodoo master named Murder Legendre in this, the film widely considered to be the first full-length zombie movie. Murder controls his own private army of zombies that keep his sugar mill running or slays whoever gets in his way, and Lugosi is quite intensely evil in the role. The rest of the actors around him and the low budget both unfortunately let the picture down, but over the years White Zombie has nevertheless been re-appraised. One could say the movie was raised from the dead...
The Black Cat (1934)
Lugosi had one of his most sympathetic roles as Dr. Vitus Werdegast in this genuinely bizarre Expressionist near-masterpiece -- and that's saying a lot for a character who ends up flaying another man alive. But in this case the flaying is sort of earned: The man is an evil occultist named Poelzig (Boris Karloff) who betrayed Werdegast and his people to the Russians during wartime, and stole his wife and daughter while Werdegast suffered in a prison camp (to make it even ickier -- this is pre-Code stuff -- Poelzig seals Werdegast's dead wife in a glass display case while taking the daughter as his concubine).
Necrophilia, black masses, human sacrifice, and torture are all trotted out in this jam-packed (it runs just over an hour) gem, the first and possibly best of the eight pictures Lugosi and Karloff did together. Both are marvelous, and Lugosi is terrific as a decent man driven to utter madness by the destructon of all he loved.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
While he would eventually portray the monster himself in 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi made his debut in the Frankenstein franchise in this excellent second sequel to the 1931 original. Here he plays Ygor, a crazed blacksmith with a broken neck (from a hanging gone wrong) who tends to the comatose monster -- played for a third and final time by Boris Karloff -- in the catacombs beneath the Frankenstein castle. When the late Dr. Frankenstein's grown son Wolf (Basil Rathbone) decides to revive the creature to clear his father's name, Ygor instead uses it to murder the jurors who sentenced him to the gallows. Bearded and in heavy makeup, Lugosi almost steals the show from the rest of the impressive cast, and his relationship with the creature is weirdly touching. Lugosi returned as Ygor in 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein, but by then the series was dowgraded by Universal to B-movie status, and his career was in a steep decline as well.
Are you really surprised? This is the role that put Lugosi on the map and made him an immortal part of pop culture for all time. After playing the role of the Count in London and Broadway productions of the play based on Bram Stoker's classic novel, Lugosi was brought to Hollywood to reprise the part under the direction of Tod Browning. The movie itself has not aged well -- it's slow and talky and not much happens onscreen -- but Lugosi is mesmerizing throughout, his presence both menacing and otherworldly, and his stare positively hypnotic. There's a reason why his performance as the world's most iconic vampire is still the one most people think of, even if they've never actually seen it: Lugosi was the first and created a template that has reverberated through the decades. Strangely, although he played other vampires, he only played Dracula one more time -- in 1948's farcical Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, of all things, where he was nevertheless as strangely compelling as ever.