Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores the legendary film actors who’ve brought Bram Stoker’s famous Count Dracula to life.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter focuses on a version of Dracula that rarely gets to take center stage. It’s Dracula as a full-blown monster.
Yes, we can certainly draw allusions from André Øvredal’s film to F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. That film’s screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, also turned Bram Stoker’s humanoid bloodsucker into something resembling an animalistic creature. Producer Albin Grau partly inspired this choice after hearing of the atrocities committed during World War I. But it’s also arguably the result of Grau never obtaining the official rights to adapt Stoker’s novel in the first place.
Unlike Nosferatu, Øvredal’s film is a direct adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Well, one chapter in Stoker’s novel, to be precise. After decades of suave and sexy Princes of Darkness, “Dracula as Monster” feels like a fresh take. But it is still the same character we’ve been enraptured by in over a century of movies.
However, a creature-feature Dracula may leave you hungry for a more classic take on the monster. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee are two of the most popular actors ever to tackle Stoker’s famous creation. And if Lee’s filmography alone is any indication, there are a lot of incredible classic Dracula performances out there.
But, strangely enough, the Dracula that has been etched into our minds doesn’t exactly come from Stoker’s novel. The incarnation of the Count that’s the stuff of legend actually comes from a 1924 play by Hamilton Deane. This play was revised by John L. Balderston in 1927 for Broadway, starring Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan. Both Lugosi and Sloan would go on to appear in Universal’s 1931 horror classic. It’s here that everything we’d come to associate with Count Dracula was born.
In the film, Lugosi’s Dracula is instantly alluring as he greets Jonathan Harker on his castle’s grand staircase. As he invites Harker into his home, Lugosi establishes an inherent charm in Dracula that is both friendly and suspicious. His energy may be magnetic, drawing Harker—and the audience—in with his piercing gaze. But Lugosi also gives Dracula an energy that keeps him withdrawn and distant. This persists even as he puts Lucy Weston and Mina Seward under his deadly spell.
We can sense in Lugosi’s performance a character that is lonely and listless. But he also plays the Count with boiling, passionate rage on the brink of exploding. He’s an enchanting, hypnotic, and ultimately deadly monster hiding behind a cape and a cane. Lugosi’s Dracula is a wolf in sheep’s clothing from the early 20th century. This juxtaposition of emotions and motivations is at the heart of every Dracula performance since Lugosi first played the character.
Over twenty-five years after Lugosi became the Count, Christopher Lee would revitalize the character for Hammer’s series of Dracula films. Lee was able to become a counterpoint to Lugosi’s Dracula, as he’d never seen his predecessor’s performance before. Lee and Lugosi both carry a similar amount of bewitching charisma, but Lee’s Dracula feels less cold than Lugosi’s. With his crisp English accent, Lee feels at home in the English countryside in a way Lugosi never could. The largest departure, however, is that Lee is far more monstrous than Lugosi, baring sharp teeth dripping with blood. Yet even then, Lee’s performance still underlines the inherent building blocks for playing Dracula. He has a deft hand at navigating a character filled with passion, violence, and unending despair.
In a twist, Paul Morrissey’s 1974 film Blood for Dracula took the character’s despair to a comedic extreme. Udo Kier plays Dracula as both a petulant child and a mesmerizing, dangerous presence. However, the childishness of Kier’s Dracula gives his characterization an impression of innocence. Kier’s Dracula seems to earnestly wonder why he has to jump through so many hoops being a vampire. Why can’t he just sleep in his coffin and drink the blood of virgins in peace? “Is that too much to ask?” Kier’s wide eyes seem to beg. His performance gives the character a strange dimension we have yet to see again.
Five years later, Klaus Kinski took a more serious approach to Dracula’s despair in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre. Unlike Murnau, Herzog is able to use Stoker’s original characters as the book was in the public domain by 1979. Kinski’s monstrous performance plays directly into the character’s tragic desire to be loved, which leads to his ultimate demise.
The relationships Dracula has with the women in his (undead) life have always been central to the forward thrust of the story. But it was never more pronounced than in Frank Langella’s iteration of the character in John Badham’s 1979 film. Like Lugosi before him, Langella first portrayed Count Dracula on Broadway in a revival of the original play. Thanks to the success of the revival, a film was made to capitalize on Langella’s popular performance. A performance that was popular primarily because of Langella’s oozing sex appeal.
As Langella mentioned in an interview with the New York Times in 1977: “I see the play as a love story with Dracula very much in love with Lucy. So I insisted on no fangs, no red eyes, no hollow cheeks. He is not a ghoul, not a ghost. I saw him more as a Byronic hero.” This choice to play Dracula as a brooding Gothic character like Heathcliffe in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights gives us a far more seductive impression than what Lugosi created.
This leads us to Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the Count in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He’s not a Byronic character like Langella’s. But what he brings is a certain believability to Dracula’s thirst for love, even amidst the elaborately stylized production design. This believability is established by giving Dracula a concrete reason for his eternal despair—the suicide of his wife.
His justifiable rage at her untimely death transforms him from Vlad the Impaler into the Prince of Darkness. This motivation makes us feel for Dracula in a way we don’t really feel for other versions of the character. The realism Oldman injected into Dracula’s eternal despair revitalized the Count once again at the end of the 20th century. This would open the doors for future versions of the character that played into the tragic nature of his life. Yes, this includes Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000, which ramped up the Count’s torment to Biblical proportions.
Since it was first published in 1897, innumerable actors have portrayed Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. Some play into the horrific nature of the character, while others try to surface Dracula’s gothic loneliness. Zhang Wei-Qiang’s elegant performance in Guy Maddin’s ballet film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary gave us a unique portrait. His Prince of Darkness feels like a dreamy nightmare for the Teeny Bopper crowd.
But what all these performances have in common are actors bringing to life a character filled with incongruities. Dracula is a monster of a man. But his unquenchable thirst for blood only runs as deep as his passionate desire for love. These are the essential elements that make Dracula a complex, fascinating character for an actor to sink their teeth into.