Early Vampire Cinema 1916 to 1974

[written by speculative fiction author and reviewer, Robert Hood]

Part 2: From Lugosi to Lee

Béla Lugosi

If Dracula dominated popular imagination as the defining representative of vampire kind up until recent times, it was Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi whose performance as the Count that set the template. Having immigrated to the United States in 1920, Lugosi initially created his Dracula role for the 1927 Broadway production of Dracula, adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The play was a huge success, running for 261 performances. Universal Pictures’ 1931 film adaptation, directed by Tod Browning, was, however, the performance that propelled Lugosi into the Hollywood stratosphere and pretty well defined his subsequent career as a horror icon alongside his contemporary, Boris Karloff.

Today the main selling point of Dracula (US-1931; dir. Tod Browning), beyond its historical significance, remains Lugosi himself. After a promising opening, the film’s pace tends to languish, as it perpetually struggles to overcome its theatrical origins. Only occasionally does it feel truly cinematic. Still, Lugosi’s accent (which was to subsequently limit his role options in the US), his aristocratic manner and his stately, rather melodramatic intensity are what make his Dracula so memorable. Modern audiences are hard pressed to see his acting as either subtle or sexy, but that is exactly how contemporary audiences reacted. Even today, the film contains many moments that stay in the mind, such as the Count on the huge decaying stairs of his Transylvanian castle, gazing into the night as wolves howl and saying: “Listen to them — children of the night. What music they make!”. Or the delicious ambiguity Lugosi gives to “I do not drink… wine.” Or, candelabra in hand, staring down at his visitor through a pattern of web, and pronouncing: “The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” Lugosi’s performance displays great conviction despite its essential artificiality.

Dracula (1931)

Even with its creaky aspects, Dracula remains a significant work within the genre, more influential than most of the technically superior films that followed it. A second Spanish-language version of the film, using the same sets and script and filmed at night after Browning and his actors had departed for the evening, is often said to be superior to it. That, I suppose, is a matter of opinion.

Dracula (1931) Spanish Version

Certainly, Drácula (directed by George Melford and an uncredited Enrique Tovar Ávalos) is somewhat more cinematic than Browning’s more famous version, with some inventive camera work, but Carlos Villarías as Conte Drácula, though effective, doesn’t imbue the character with the iconic uniqueness that Lugosi gives his Dracula.

Apart from anything else, the popularity of Lugosi’s Dracula contributed to Universal’s embracing of horror/monster films as a key market area and led to what has become known as the Universal Monster cycle. Oddly enough, however, Bela Lugosi reprised his key role as Dracula only once, much later, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (US-1948; dir. Charles Barton) toward the end of the “cycle”, once the monsters had become a source of comedy rather than horror. This was the actor’s last A-film, his subsequent career spent in a variety of mostly low-budget pot-boilers.

Abbot and Costello meet 'Béla'...

Before then, however, Lugosi and Browning returned to vampires (sort of) in 1935, with Mark of the Vampire, this time working with MGM. Lugosi plays Count Mora — an assumed vampire that is Dracula in all but name. However, the vampire turns out to be fake. Lugosi again played a Dracula-esque vampire — a real one this time — in The Return of the Vampire (US-1944; dir. Lew Anders), where he reprised his Draculan appearance and manner in London during and immediately after the Blitz. The vampire here even re-awakens a Wolfman substitute — something Lugosi apparently wasn’t very pleased about, as it placed the movie in the monster-mash tradition and diluted the impact of his presence. He looks pretty cranky throughout.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Meanwhile Universal exercised their control over the Dracula name with Dracula’s Daughter (US-1936; dir. Lambert Hillyer), though the Count is only glimpsed in a follow-on from the end of the previous film, staked in his coffin by Edward Sloan’s Von Helsing. Gloria Holden dominates this one as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s daughter, with an effectively haughty yet troubled air that gives this particular vampire offspring much audience sympathy. There is also an undercurrent of sexuality in one scene where Countess Zaleska struggles with her blood-hunger in the presence of a young model, Lili. In later decades the lesbian vampire would become a commonplace in movies highlighting female vampires, often drawing on the gothic novella “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (published in 1872). Carmilla is to female vampires what Dracula is to males, being the inspiration behind a slew of increasingly sex-driven, and even softcore, films over the years.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that the Universal Monster Makers really settled down to do sequels, some with Dracula in them, though not played by Lugosi. The next Universal Count was Lon Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula (US-1943; dir. Robert Siodmak) followed by John Carradine in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).

Son of Dracula (1943)

By this stage, however, it was obvious that the bottom had fallen out of the genre at anything more than B-level. Others were willing to make vampire films — a few of them — though even fewer were major works. The vampires were mostly Dracula clones — in their aristocratic manner and their attire. Of special note is the excellent El Vampiro (aka The Vampire; Mexico-1957; dir. Fernando Méndez) — though if you seek it out avoid the US version released in 1968, which cut some 20 minutes from the original and added nine minutes of new, poor-quality material. Here the Dracula-like vampire is named Count Karol de Lavud (Germàn Robles). Méndez made a less-effective sequel six months later — El Ataud del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin). Another vampiric film, I Vampiri (Italy-1956; dir. Riccardo Freda [and Mario Bava]), is not really a vampire movie at all — more Les Yeux Sans Visage (Georges Franju) than it is Dracula, despite the title.

Generally, by the late 1940s the outlook had begun to look grim for horror as a genre. Then, in the UK, a small production studio made a break-through. After fiddling with comedies and TV-spin-offs, many of them science fiction, Hammer Studios decided to recreate the stories that had been such a winner for Universal, starting with Frankenstein. The Curse of Frankenstein (US-1957; dir. Terence Fisher) was such a huge success, internationally, that they next assayed Dracula in The Horror of Dracula [aka Dracula] (UK-1958). Terence Fisher was again the director, once more proving himself adept at using relatively small budgets to create a rich and luxuriant horror cinescape.

The Hammer films were something new on the scene, not in subject matter, but in approach. The vivid use of Technicolour (where black-and-white had been the norm), their historical European settings — artificial yet achieving a convincing ambiance that creates a dark fantasy world of its own — and the introduction, increasingly so over time, of more explicit levels of violence, gore and sex, began a trend that not only made Hammer one of England’s major film studios and a worldwide phenomenon, but sparked a new era for horror cinema. A key to the success of many of Hammer’s “horrors” was the availability of a “repertory company” of talented actors — in particular the great Peter Cushing as well as character players such as Michael Ripper — who would appear again and again in the films. But it was Christopher Lee who would become Lugosi to Cushing’s Karloff.

Christopher Lee as Dracula

Cushing is typically excellent as Van Helsing in The Horror of Dracula, but it was Lee’s interpretation of the Count that was a worldwide sensation. Aristocratic and imposing, yet displaying an animalistic and fearsome nature under his veneer of nobility, Lee’s Dracula exudes a real sense of danger and supernatural threat, infusing the role with a sexual menace that is much more prurient than Lugosi ever achieved. This was, of course, a reflection of the times — even though Hammer was sniped at by critics who failed to see the Art beneath the exploitative surface and persistently castigated the studio for its lack of good taste.

In subsequent films, Lee’s Count would become increasingly vicious, appearing as a red-eyed demonic presence, often with minimal dialogue. Yet even then the sense of sexual threat remained. Renowned for beautiful female victims displaying abundant cleavage, Hammer’s Dracula films — from the sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966; dir. Terence Fisher) through to Lee’s last appearance as the Count in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973; dir. Alan Gibson) — would be variably successful and reveal a lead actor who had become a virtual prisoner to the role, in the end showing an impatience with it that even money couldn’t overcome.

"Beautiful female victims displaying abundant cleavage"

Nevertheless Lee’s Dracula had inspired something of a renaissance in vampire cinema and vampire films influenced by them began to appear everywhere — in Italy especially, but also in unlikely places such as Japan, where Michio Yamamoto directed a trilogy of Dracula films clearly inspired by Hammer’s: Yûreiyashiki no kyôfu: Chi o suu ningyô [aka Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll] (1970); Noroi no yakata: Chi o sû me [aka Lake of Dracula; Bloodthirsty Eyes] (1971); and Chi o suu bara [aka Evil of Dracula] (1974). In these, the vampire is a caped aristocrat, but the ambiance and setting is thoroughly Japanese.

Lake of Dracula (1971)

Other vampires from the period, such as Count Yorga, in Count Yorga, Vampire (US-1970; dir. Bob Kelljan) and its sequel The Return of Count Yorga (1971) and Manuwalde in Blacula (US-1972; dir. Willian Crain) and Scream Blacula Scream (US-1073; dir. Bob Kelljan) are clear Dracula analogues, though effective in their own right. Yet as the latter films indicate, producers were looking for ways to re-jig the tropes to give variety to the sub-genre.

Blacula (1972)

Even Hammer sought to add spark to what had become for them a dying ember. After such modernizing efforts as Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972; dir. Alan Gibson), in which a bunch of mods resurrect Dracula in contemporary London, and the aforementioned Satanic Rites, in which Dracula has become an industrialist bent on corporate evil, the studio’s final Dracula film — made sans Lee — was a co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974; dir. Roy Ward Baker) — a Kung Fu-horror meld that may not be orthodox but is an undeniably entertaining curiosity.

Hammer had also made a number of non-Dracula vampire films while pumping out entries in their Dracula franchise. The official sequel to Horror of Dracula had in fact not featured Dracula at all, Lee being unavailable. Brides of Dracula (1960; dir. Terence Fisher) stars David Peel as Baron Meinster, an acolyte of the Count’s — though Peter Cushing does turn up as Van Helsing. Vampire Circus (1972; dir. Robert Young) is interesting as a variant, being one of the first to feature non-aristocratic vampires. These bloodsuckers are itinerant performers, touring the countryside and feasting on their victims under cover of circus tents and sideshows (as it were).

Of particular note are the Hammer films featuring female vampires — especially the “Karnstein trilogy” based on Le Fanu’s Carmilla story: The Vampire Lovers (1970; dir. Roy Ward Baker), starring Ingrid Pitt as Mircalla/Carmilla Karnstein; Lust for a Vampire (1971; dir. Jimmy Sangster); and Twins of Evil (1971; dir. John Hough). These ramp up the lesbian theme and corresponding levels of female sexuality and nudity — though with a somewhat English coyness that others, particularly continental Europeans, embraced with much greater explicitness in such films as Jesus Franco’s Vampiros Lesbos (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971; dir. Harry Kümel) and Vampyres: Daughters of Darkness (1974; dir. José Ramón Larraz).

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Hammer’s final vampire film was the lesser-known Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter (1974; dir. Brian Clemens), as it happens one of the studio’s most effective later movies. Here the emphasis is placed, not on a particular vampire, but on a man dedicated to hunting the undead — an action-hero version of Van Helsing. It has shades of Buffy and all the Chosen Ones that were to follow.

Captain Kronos (1974)

There have been many more versions of the Dracula story since 1974, of course, but as the variants suggest this marks the end of the aristocratic vampire’s absolute dominance over the sub-genre. From this point on, vampires would be less constrained to a period European setting and would often be ordinary people rather than ancient aristocrats bent on draining the lifeblood of an insecure democratic world.

Soon the non-traditional lower-class bloodsuckers of Kathyrn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) would descend upon the genre in full force.

Sources: The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alain Silver and James Ursini (Limelight Editions, NY, 1993); The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, edited by Phil Hardy (Aurum Press, 1997); IMDb.

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About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press and editor-in-chief for review site, Beyond Fiction. Also cycles, plays floorball, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

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