Count Dracula is one of the few monster roles that gives actors something to work with. Unlike horror’s many grunting madmen, shrieking ghosts, or staggering undead, Dracula requires character, personality, atmosphere. Dracula has lines, a home, and a master plan.
For almost a century, actors have played the Count with varying degrees of success. Some have portrayed him as a gothic hero yearning to be loved, others as a cruel tyrant whose hungers are as sexual as they are supernatural. All have added to the character’s legend in one way another, either through glamour, command, sheer creepiness, or comic overacting.
Here, for your approval, is Part One of my rating of the actors who have played the king of the vampires.* If I left out any major portrayals, please feel free to add them in the comments section. Meanwhile, keep your windows locked, and your crucifix at hand.
- Luke Evans, Dracula Untold (2014)
It’s difficult, but possible, to blame Evans’ questionable Dracula on the direction behind it. Telling a stylized version of the Count’s origins as Vlad The Impaler, Dracula Untold is an obnoxious action-fantasy film that both ignores the character’s atmosphere and doesn’t deliver on the vicious battlefield gore it promises (PG-13 horror movies—truly the worst).
But it’s not just the ridiculous set-up which puts Evans at the bottom of the list. His Dracula is all sighs and bewilderment, even in battle. He never displays the righteous indignation that a Christian king like Vlad would breathe from his every pore, and he never owns his vampirism in a way that makes it anything other than a set of superpowers. With Dracula, presence is key, but Evans has none, and ends up just another action hero in ridiculously chunky armor.
- Duncan Regehr, The Monster Squad (1987)
Revisionist history and ‘80s nostalgia will tell you that The Monster Squad is a good movie. This is a lie. While Rick Baker’s redesigns of the Universal pantheon for the film are incredible, their use in this slapdash Goonies bite-off is a disservice to the monsters they portray, none more so than Dracula.
While Regehr does a decent job at portraying the Count’s megalomania and lust for power, his Dracula is any other monster—a broad-shouldered wind-up toy, lumbering forward to seize his victims by the neck. The scene where he turns a group of teenage girls into his bride lacks all sex appeal, which is Dracula’s most prominent calling card. And why the Hell does Count Dracula need a stick of dynamite to destroy a treehouse?
What makes Dracula the leader of the monsters is that he’s a character—intelligent, cunning, interesting. But Regehr’s Dracula is just one figure in an evil chorus line.
- Jack Palance, Dracula (1972)
Jack Palance apparently enjoyed success playing the Count on stage, which one can imagine watching Dan Curtis’ made-for-TV movie of Dracula. Palance is tall, commanding, and has that stony face which one can see glaring at them in contempt for centuries.
Not only that, but Palance does a good job of making Dracula emotional but not emo, a vicious bully who becomes deeply enraged when he doesn’t get his way, which is true to Stoker’s original character. In general, Curtis’ Dracula actually does the book justice, especially during the scene in which the Count brags to Harker about his warrior bloodline.
That said, Palance has two major flaws working against him. The first is his voice—he delivers every line a breathy American accent, which keeps the viewer from believing he’s a Transylvanian nobleman. The second, sadly, is his teeth. So much of the role involves close-up mouth shots, and other than his fake fangs Palance’s teeth are distractingly terrible. Perhaps that lends strength to the idea of the Count living alone without access to modern dentistry, but it’s also very distracting.
- Richard Roxburgh, Van Helsing (2004)
Overall, Van Helsing is a mindless dogpile of confused action sequences and bad CGI that tries to honor the Universal monster movies without understanding what makes them classic. However, it does make one or two interesting choices, one of which is Richard Roxburgh’s portrayal of Count Dracula.
Sure, like everyone in this movie Dracula is an overblown caricature of himself more concerned with ridiculous steampunk technology than exuding actual menace. In that way, Roxburgh’s Count is over the top and muppet-ish, flapping his hands and wiping his hair out of his face like some sort of fop. But if you’re already interested in Van Helsing, which was directed by the same man who transformed The Mummy from a brooding tale of ancient magic into a Disneyland ride, you have probably overlooked these issues.
And that’s also what makes Roxburgh’s Dracula somewhat endearing. If we’re moving Dracula from his primary role of creeping shadow to his secondary role of maniacal nocturnal supervillain, Roxburgh’s insane prince of darkness has a certain appeal. His mix of goose-stepping calm and petulant anger seems on the money, and gives viewers what they’ve come to expect from the Count.
- Carlos Villarías, Drácula (1931)
As many of the know-it-all horror fans reading this know, a Spanish language version of Dracula was filmed at the same time as the Bela Lugosi original, and many scholars argue that it’s the better of the two (David J. Skal’s excellent Hollywood Gothic tells its story, and suggests that it far surpasses Tod Browning’s film, in part because it was shot at night and in part because of Lupita Tovar’s stunning performance as Mina). Portraying Dracula in this version was Carlos Villarías, whose unique take on the Count helped round the character as we know it.
Perhaps it was the difference in audience that inspired Villarías to be more bright-eyed and energetic than Lugosi; anyone who has watched a telenovela can see that Latino audiences aren’t always impressed by Less Is More. Villarías’s Count is a sharp and active vampire with shining eyes and a lunatic grin, who seems bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting to England and mixing with the warm-blooded people there.
Often the vampire is shown as shape-shifting into a wolf or bat, but many forget that one of Dracula’s signature forms is a swarm of rats. Villarías’s Dracula, like Schreck’s Graf Orlock in Nosferatu, seems very rodent-like, his bright eyes searching for blood, his bared teeth ready to gnaw (also, the ears help). In this way, he gives fans a specific insight into who and what a vampire can be, both setting a precedent while at the same time broadening our understanding of the undead.
Enjoy Part 2 of my Dracula ratings tomorrow!
*Some of you might notice the omission of Max Schreck’s Graf Orlock from F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu. This is because a) technically, Orlock and Dracula are different vampires; b) it is hard to discuss the merits of silent films versus talkies, given the upper hand talkies have on their predecessors; and c) while I fucking adore Nosferatu, I am not sure that Schreck’s performance is what makes the movie great. One wonders if any actor in that make-up under Murnau’s direction would have been similarly brilliant.