Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Few Words from Charles E. Butler

A friend of mine has been writing books on vampires for several years now. I've asked him to write a guest post for my blog as a sort of book end for my 10 part series on "Dracula." 

His first book, The Romance of Dracula: A Personal Journey of the Count on Celluloid is a review of the 14 major film adaptations of Bram Stoker's immortal tale. and Vampires Everywhere: The Rise of the Movie Undead discusses other vampire movies that have helped keep the genre alive. He also has a story featured in Vampires Romance to Rippers: An Anthology of Tasty Stories. He's recently published Vampires Under the Hammer which examines 16 vampire movies made at Britain's Hammer Studios from 1957 to 1974.

In his guest post, Charles addresses the fact that while Bela Lugosi only played Dracula twice on film, he went on to play other vampires in movies for other studios, some of the movies surpassing Universal's "Dracula" in quality.

Bela Lugosi’s Best Vampire Movies

by Charles E. Butler
Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi was born in the Hungarian town of Lugos in 1882. His role as the undead aristocrat Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s "Dracula" (1930) is considered his greatest performance and he found himself, thanks mainly to Universal’s publicity machine, typecast very quickly. He had been paid off not to star in "Dracula’s Daughter" and was impersonated by a wax dummy. Similarly, he would be replaced by Lon Chaney Jr for "Son of Dracula," and John Carradine for House of Frankenstein (1944) and its sequel, "House of Dracula" (1945). In this period, however, came some of Lugosi’s best horror movies. "The Black Cat" (1934), "The Raven" (1935), "The Son of Frankenstein" (1939) and "The Bodysnatcher" (1945). He had turned down the role of Frankenstein’s creature in James Whale’s "Frankenstein" (1931), but later stole George Waggner’s "The Wolfman" (1941), as the haunted and cursed gypsy, Bela, even though he only occupies a few moments of screen time.                                                                                              
Bela Lugosi  in "The Wolf Man"
"Mark of the Vampire" and the later "Return of the Vampire" (1943) are Lugosi’s best vampire movies and should be discussed in more depth. The characters, Count Mora and Armand Tesla , released Lugosi and the film makers from the shackles of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) and the movies fare better because of this. Neither was made at Universal. "Mark of the Vampire" was fashioned at MGM and was a remake of Browning’s earlier "London After Midnight" starring Lon Chaney. Browning had given the script writing reins to Guy Endore, author of "The Werewolf of Paris" (1933), and his revision had invented one of the more interesting reasons that people become vampires after death. Mora sports a bullet wound to his temple throughout the film. The censor had cut the explanation that he had abused his own daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland), forcing him to take her life and his. Both rise impressively from the grave as vampires to reveal shocks that had been bereft of Browning’s "Dracula." Unfortunately, this cover is also blown when it is revealed that the mute vampires are actually jobbing actors trying to force a murderer to confess. As Lugosi was already waning in the studio popularity stakes, this final revelation added a life-imitates-art irony to the bizarre fa├žade of eeriness that Browning was never able to match in his masterpiece by proxy, "Dracula."

As Armand Tesla in Columbia’s "Return of the Vampire," Lugosi is a black magician who has cursed himself with vampirism. He is destroyed at the beginning of the movie, only to be unearthed by the mortar bombings of World War One. Military Police of the comedy relief variety pull the spike from his heart, believing it to be a length of shrapnel. Tesla revives and is aided by Andreas (Matt Willis), whose cloak of servitude is yak hair, a rubber snout and fangs. Andreas is a werewolf. This film was Columbia’s attempt to cash in on Universal’s own movie; "Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man" (1943), in which Lugosi played the blind Frankenstein monster.

Columbia didn’t hold the patent to the name Dracula, but this doesn’t stop director Lew Landers/Lewis Friedlander, from aping many scenes from Bela’s signature movie. Events take a turn when Andreas is taught to shuck off the hold of Armand Tesla and stand on his own two feet. At the end of the film, he stakes the vampire a second time. Lugosi melts away under the rays of the sun as his skin falls from his face like wax. Arguably, Lugosi was never better as a vampire than in this movie. As in Mark of the Vampire’s Count Mora, Armand Tesla, freed of Dracula’s very demanding constraints – a stage bound script being the worst culprit – becomes a character that holds his own hypnotic fascination. It is certainly the last time that Lugosi was taken seriously as the movie master of the undead. In 1948, he was lured back to Universal and burlesqued his famous image in "Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein," playing Count Dracula for the second and final time. In satin cape and clown white face, he takes on the role of the Mad Scientist trying to supercharge the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), by adding the brain of Lou Costello. It is hard to believe that the film had once been conceived as a straight thriller. Following on from the lukewarm, "House of Dracula," Bela returns and has obvious fun in his old role and the film was a box office bulls eye that pulled Universal from the brink of bankruptcy in much the same way as "Dracula" had seventeen years earlier. It was also the last time that Lugosi would be taken seriously in the cinema. After "Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein," he was forced into films on the poverty row that were general slap stick comedies that ran his image into the ground quicker than a stake through the heart. "Old Mother Riley meets the Vampire" (1952), billed him opposite fading vaudevillian, Arthur Lucan. He plays a deluded scientist who believes himself to be a vampire. The only point of interest is the fact that the director of this film was John Gilling, who would go on to direct Hammer’s "Plague of the Zombies" and "The Reptile," both made in 1966. Further abominations like "Spooks Run Wild" and "Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" only accentuate the dire circumstances of the horror genre as a whole in the early 1950s.

Bela Lugosi meet Martin and Lewis wannabes:

The world was changing. Man had split the atom and the new craze known as the drive-in would take hold. Scientifically bred vampires such as "The Thing From Another World" (1951), joined the roster with alien bloodsuckers found in "Not of This Earth" (1956) and "IT! The Terror From Beyond Space" (1958) and relegated a back seat to the dire half-vampires invented by Edward D Wood Jr. and his contemporaries that Bela was reduced to. The actor himself had been fighting drug and alcohol addiction for twenty years or more and I think that it is safe to say that his need for easy money to feed his habits and his indifference to fully mastering the English language made it harder for him to secure a safe and well paying contract. He died in 1956 on August 16th, in poverty and practically forgotten. With thanks to the media push of television, video, DVD and now internet surfing, Bela Lugosi is regarded as one of the greatest of horror film stars with many web-sites and social pages doubling in their numbers almost daily. As the slogan goes, ‘Bela Lugosi’s dead!’ but his legacy, like that of his most famous role, Count Dracula, will live on forever.

The one, the only