Bela Lugosi Had A Lot To 'Unlearn' When Bringing Dracula To The Big Screen

In "Dracula," Bram Stoker's epistolary-style gothic horror novel, the titular Count is cold and menacing, devoid of the sensuality associated with vampirism. Despite the novel's depiction of the Count in a wholly unsavory manner, adaptations on the big screen have invariably imbued Dracula with some degree of eroticism. Be it Sir Christopher Lee's feral rendition in Hammer Horror films or Gary Oldman's lovesick re-interpretation in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," Dracula has always had a sensual edge.

However, it was Bela Lugosi's Dracula that helped cement the iconography of the world's most famous vampire as a suave seducer. The 1931 Universal film, "Dracula," saw Lugosi make the role his own by etching the blueprint of a monster who was equally terrifying and mesmerizing. Although "Nosferatu" is now regarded as an influential entry that shaped the vampire genre, this unauthorized adaptation had limited distribution at the time of its release. This made Lugosi's Dracula the definitive portrayal of Stoker's character on-screen, as it granted audiences an idea of how a creature of the night looked and behaved. Due to the success of the 1931 film, Lugosi became synonymous with the Transylvanian Count, whose bite was now perceived as both life-draining and titillating.

However, Lugosi, who was predominantly a stage performer, had to unlearn certain techniques that were suited solely for the Broadway adaptations of the classic horror novel. This process of unlearning, although necessary, was extremely demanding. Here's how it went. 

Playing Dracula for different crowds

Lugosi's relationship with the role that went on to define him was a complicated one. Although Dracula granted him overwhelming fame, it also typecasted him into parts that demanded a specific brand of theatrical villainy. Lugosi's journey as a Broadway actor commenced with standing ovations for his portrayal of the Count onstage, which was translated onto the screen in a slightly tempered manner. According to Arthur Lennig's "The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi," criticism has been directed at Lugosi's "larger-than-life interpretation" of Dracula, as his movements and cadence have been considered too deliberate and stylized for the big screen.

There's a morsel of truth in this claim, as Lugosi himself talked about unlearning the exaggerated mannerisms that made the play a success in a production interview for "Dracula:"

"There was a great deal that I had to unlearn. In the theatre, I was playing not only to the spectators in the front rows but also to those in the last rows of the gallery, and there was some exaggeration in everything I did, not only in the tonal pitch of my voice but in the changes of facial expression. But for the screen...I have found that a great deal of repression was an absolute necessity. Tod Browning has continually had to 'hold me down.'"

Browning, who helmed the 1931 film, clearly played a crucial role in toning down Lugosi's stage-attuned mannerisms for better effect on film. Despite unlearning meticulously, Lugosi found it difficult to shake off these "thoroughly settled" techniques employed while performing as Dracula countless times onstage. While some still believe that Lugosi's style was too much for the camera, I would like to argue in favor of the contrary. 

Lugosi brought suave theatricality to Dracula

In Browning's "Dracula," when Renfield (Dwight Frye) first meets the Count, the terror of the scene is heightened due to the gap in knowledge between the audience and Renfield. Lugosi imbues the Count with appropriate eeriness — although Dracula is endlessly charming toward the solicitor, there is an exaggerated menace that immediately points to the fact that something is amiss. However, like a man who doesn't yet know he's in a gothic horror novel, Renfield is oblivious to the fact that the Count is an undead predator. This is believable largely due to Lugosi's performance, as his demeanor can be read both as menacing and eccentric, depending on your worldview (and genre awareness).

This deliberate, odd acting style, which is a tempered condensation of Lugosi's many theatrical performances as Dracula, undoubtedly heightens the stakes of the film and grants the character the necessary otherworldly aura. Stoker's Dracula, who Jonathan found eccentric and well-spoken, was also charming when he needed to be, albeit completely lacking the sexual element. Lugosi brings the charming aspects of Dracula to life while adding a dangerous sense of eroticism to his undead villainy, which culminates into a formidable image of the 'other,' who knows how to manipulate the living.

Although many fine actors have added their own tint to this fanged role, Lugosi's contribution to shaping Dracula into the figurehead of the vampire sub-genre has been unprecedented. Perhaps, Lugosi lived in Dracula's skin for far too long, unable to shed it off for good in the end.