Film fest time…
Bela Lugosi is best-known for playing Dracula in the 1931 Universal film. He played the role on Broadway as well, and he originated what we immediately think of when vampires come to mind (Not looking at you, Twilight.). Hauntingly slow speech. Clawed hands. A sweep of a cape. Bela Lugosi did it all first.
Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Desö Blaskó in 1882 in Hungary. He left after the botched Communist Revolution of 1919 and came to America, where he first played Dracula on Broadway in 1927. He didn’t know much about vampires, and there was no accepted canon, but he was the Continental type the producers were looking for. Accustomed to playing romantic leads, Lugosi wanted to play Dracula to add some diversity to his resume. His only issue was that he had very few lines; however, with his thick accent and limited English, this worked in his favor.
When the rights to the play were bought by Universal, Lugosi was appearing in its West Coast touring company, and he lobbied to play the role onscreen. What tipped the balance in his favor was Tod Browning seeing Lugosi in the play. The rest, of course, is history.
The downside of Lugosi playing the role so memorably was that he couldn’t get away from portraying vampires in some form. His English improved, but his accent stayed, and it no doubt hampered him from moving on. He was by no means idle, though, and made dozens of low-budget sci-fi and horror films up until his death. Among the many appearances Lugosi made:
Night of Terror (1933)
Mr. Lugosi mixed things up here, swapping his cape for a turban as Dagar, an Indian who’s basically a valet. The film starts out being about a mysterious killer who sneaks up on couples sitting in their cars and gazing at the moon.
The real plot, however, is a mystery itself. It involves the wealthy Rinehart family being killed off one by one. It also involves Mary Rinehart’s fiancee, Arthur, performing a strange experiment on himself that involves his being buried alive. And just in case things aren’t random enough, the characters have a seance to ferret out who the killer is.
The film clocks in at roughly over an hour and is refreshing only because Lugosi plays a sympathetic character for once, even if he does have a habit of lurking about and acting creepy.
The Return of Chandu (1934)
The wealthy Chandler family of Beverly Hills is hosting Princess Nadji of Egypt. Lugosi plays Frank Chandler, also known as Chandu the Magician. Chandu was a popular character from a radio series that was brought to the screen, and Lugosi played Chandu in all the series’ films except one–according to the Standard-Examiner, in the 1932 installment, Lugosi played Roxor, Chandu’s rival.
In this film, Nadji is hunted by a cat-worshiping cult, Ubasti, and set to be its human sacrifice. Chandu tries to protect Nadji by taking her on a yacht cruise with his family, but Nadji gets kidnapped before they can leave, natch. The bad guys stick her in a sarcophagus and spirit her away to their lair, where Chandu and his nephew have to rescue her. The film isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, but the big novelty is that some of the sets were recycled from King Kong, which had been made the previous year.
Again, it’s a shame Lugosi seldom got to play congenial characters. He seemed like a genuinely nice person, and in this film he appears overjoyed not to be the villain or anything resembling a villain.
Bowery At Midnight (1942)
Lugosi plays Karl Wagner, a kindly soup kitchen owner and criminology professor. He even gets to smile this time around, although it has a “Step into my web,” look about it. When an escaped convict named Fingers sidles into his facility, Karl gives him what-for. He also gives him the shock of his life: The soup kitchen is just a front for a busy crime ring.
Fingers has no idea what he’s walked into. Karl kills him after Fingers opens a jeweler’s safe for him, and Karl’s other operatives wonder if they’ll meet the same fate. Little do they know Karl can see them on the closed-circuit camera. Yeah, in 1942.
Sooner or later, of course, the piper must be paid. The police are sniffing around, and the doctor who works with him takes offense when Karl refers to him as “a human derelict.” The plot gets a bit mixed up. but it’s an interesting melee.
Return of the Vampire (1943)
As if people in wartime London didn’t have enough on their plates, they now have vampires and wolf creatures to worry about. There’s nothing like trying to take down supernatural bad guys during an air raid.
The film has a female protagonist, Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who also happens to be a scientist. She rescues a poor enslaved wolfman, Andreas from the vampire’s clutches and proceeds to reform him. Matters become further complicated when two innocent cemetary workers remove the stake Lady Ainsley’s friend drove into the vampire’s heart. Not only that, but the vampire’s descendant is her son’s fiancee, Nicky (played by Nina Foch). Lady Ainsley not only has to save Nicky, but keep Andreas from becoming a werewolf again. Whew.
To be fair, Return of the Vampire boasts higher production values and better writing in most respects. What’s funny is that people keep getting bit in this movie, one after the other, yet no one thinks to hang garlic or brandish crucifixes. At least not at first. 😉
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Ah yes, Plan 9 is the movie we’ve all heard about, and it’s every bit as bad as Seinfeld said. Although, I think Seinfeld held back. It. Really. Is. That. Awful. I’m going to have to revisit it more fully someday because it begs for it, but for now, we’re going to focus on Bela’s presence in what Ed Wood called “Bela Lugosi’s last movie.” Actually, Bela’s lack of presence is more like it.
Bela plays an old man who dies about five minutes into the film and is resurrected by the visiting aliens. He comes staggering through the bushes and waves his cape around. Then he does it again. And again. And again. The character doesn’t even get his own name, and is referred to in the cast list as “Ghoul Man.”
Here’s the thing, though: Lugosi was never actually in the film. He died in 1956. Ed Wood shot the footage for another project right before Lugosi died and inserted it into Plan 9. Lugosi’s character gets out of the woods now and then, as Woods used a double holding a cape in front of his face. It doesn’t last long, though, because the next time we see him, Lugosi once again staggers out of the bushes.
Lugosi would never escape Dracula, even in death, as his widow had him buried in a Dracula costume. In spite of that, he managed to assemble an extensive body of work and is an icon of horror cinema.
For more of the Second Annual Marathon Stars Blogathon, please see Virginie, Crystal, and Samantha. Thanks for hosting, ladies–this was a great idea! As usual, thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow with another surprise blogathon!
The Return of Chandu, Bowery At Midnight, Return of the Vampire, and Plan 9 From Outer Space are available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. Night of Terror can be viewed on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
Lennig, Arthur. The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.