Yesterday, we rated Draculas 10 through 6, from the tragic to the refreshingly comic. For those of you who just got through the Borgo Pass, here’s our list thus far:
10. Luke Evans (blecch)
9. Duncan Regehr (feh)
8. Jack Palance (eh)
7. Richard Roxburgh (huh)
6. Carlos Villarías (ooh!)
Now, let’s continue. Unlike yesterday’s list, none of the Draculas rated today will be truly terrible; in fact, all of them did a solid if not impressive job of portraying the Count. But there can only be one king of the vampires (as Dracula would no doubt sternly remind you), so let’s see who wins.
5. Gray Oldman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Stoker’s classic tale has a buttload of problems—Keanu and Winona’s British accents, the ridiculous telegraphing of vampirism as sex, the killer make-up effects that go nowhere. That said, it’s also a brooding visual feast, and it gives us Gary Oldman as a truly terrifying version of the Count.
In truth, Gary Oldman plays three Draculas in this film—the medieval Vlad The Impaler, old Dracula in his castle, and young Dracula on the streets of London. Each has his own merits, though, and all three feel connected despite their very different (and kind of ridiculous) individual costumes. It’s as old Dracula, however, an inhuman revenant whose shadow has a life of its own, where Oldman is most effective. His elegance is palpably evil; he’s a gleefully bad liar in an age where everyone is just too stupid to assume that the darkness is out to get you.
More than anything, Oldman does what he does best: he dives in. Too often, Dracula is an actor playing himself with fangs (Evans and Palance both did that), but Oldman is entirely the character. His accent never slips, his poise never falters. In that way, he feels truly vampiric, like a creature pretending to be human while entirely something else.
On top of all that, he seems to have fun with the role. It’s very obvious when the actor playing Dracula feels slightly embarrassed, and attempts to alter the character as though to say, See? Dracula doesn’t HAVE to be silly! Oldman owns it.
4. Klaus Kinski, Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
Count Dracula is a foreigner in more ways than one. Not only does he live in the far-off reaches of Transylvania, but he has not walked among living men for centuries. He is awkward, alien, desperate for attention and angered by the disgust with which he’s regarded. And in Werner Herzog’s classic remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu, Klaus Kinski masters this alienation.
In an attempt to return to the original film’s inspiration, Herzog cast Kinski not as Graf Orlock, but Count Dracula. However, Kinski still channels the strange inhumanity of the original Nosferatu in his portrayal of Dracula. His Dracula is hunched and huddled like a hanging bat. He speaks in a plaintive voice, as though he is always worried he is saying the wrong thing. When he darts forward at the sight of Harker’s blood, he seems genuinely furious that the man is so scared of what the vampire considers a natural impulse.
And then, there’s this scene:
To a certain extent, Kinski is playing Kinski here—bizarre, detached, contemptuous of a world that considers him odd. But his depiction of Dracula as a strange, pathetic, out of place figure who can’t help but bring plague and horror wherever he goes turned the role on its head, and reminded us that even the lord of all vampires has lived like a cave fish for far too long.
3. Frank Langella, Dracula (1979)
Plot-wise, Langella’s Dracula is a complete and utter departure from Stoker’s novel. That said, Langella’s portrayal of Dracula helped solidly redefine the way we see the character, so the film’s lack of adherence to canon can be forgiven.
Langella’s performance is the ultimate depiction of Dracula as a lover. He is sexually dominant, but not forceful or brutal; when first arriving in Lucy’s bedroom, he even tells her, “I need your blood”, receiving her consent before he feeds from her. Dracula dances, hosts elaborate dinner dates, uses his hypnosis to cure pesky migraines. He and Lucy even share a coffin by the end. He doesn’t need a foreign accent or huge fangs—that steady, confident voice and piercing gaze are already oddly alluring.
As a result, Langella gives us Dracula The Hero; Harker and Van Helsing’s hunt for him feels almost like a witch hunt by agents of a normal world who can’t let a couple be happy together. His vampire is better than human; by comparison, when Mina, buried like a normal mortal, returns from the grave, she is truly horrific (I’d posit that Mina’s shuffling strigoi is one of scarier vampires in film–watch if you don’t believe me). But Dracula, who is free to be himself, is dreamy rather than nightmarish.
This, of course, is also cheesy as Hell. Langella’s almost-afro looks ridiculous, as does the Saturday Night Fever-esque collar on his cape. Still, every time Dracula is portrayed as a lovesick prince rather than a cruel tyrant, we have Langella to thank for it.
2. Christopher Lee, The Hammer Dracula Films
For some, Christopher Lee taking the silver medal on this list might be seen as sacrilege, and I give that opinion plenty of respect. While Dracula was already an iconic character by the time Lee played the role, he gave the Count new life for a new generation of fans.
Rather than a sashaying nobleman, Lee’s Dracula is a fierce tyrant. He views the world as a feeding ground, and rules it with an iron fist. At no point is Lee’s Dracula interested in fitting in with modern society, but rather only seeks to own it entirely. His stature, confidence, and fanged snarl are the stuff of nightmares, the inevitability of death and dominance made flesh.
Lee also introduced the world to the Satanic Dracula. Early on, Dracula and vampires, though repelled by the cross and holy water, were seen as their own strange race of horrors. But like Stoker’s original character, Lee’s Dracula gains his power from dark necromancy, and is repeatedly resurrected through black magic and blood rituals. Dracula is not simply lord of the vampires, he is an agent of Satan on earth, an embodiment of all things blasphemous and evil.
There are two aspects of Lee’s Dracula that keep him from topping this list. The first is that, whether due to interpretation, budget, or the fads of the times, Lee is a very physical Dracula. He does a lot of choking and power-walking, and often dies in clumsy and bloody ways that the ethereal Count should be able to avoid. The second is that he barely speaks, and is often an ancillary character rather than the central one. Lee’s Dracula is truly, and sometimes disappointingly, a monster.
This is no fault of Christopher Lee’s. Lee constantly urged writers to return to Stoker’s novel, and famous refused to speak in Dracula, Prince of Darkness because he thought the writing was so bad. He was as noble an actor as has ever played the character, going so far as to give ample credit to his predecessor in the role.
Which leads us to…
- Bela Lugosi, Dracula (1931)
If there’s anything vampires teach us, it’s that oftentimes the old ways are better.
In his brilliant book The Man Who Saved Britain, author Simon Winder claims that to try and separate Ian Flemming’s 007 and the James Bond of the blockbuster films is unfair. Bond is a character of both page and screen, the two depictions indivisible. The same can be said of Count Dracula—to claim allegiance only to Stoker’s novel is shortsighted and willfully ignorant. On the page, Dracula is a tiny mustached man with a unibrow, and we all know that is not who Dracula is. Because Dracula is Bela Lugosi.
Unlike Christopher Lee, who played the role more than any actor ever, the Hungarian Lugosi only has one truly great Dracula film to his name, which is Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula (though very entertaining, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein doesn’t quite cut the mustard). However, Lugosi is so iconic in the role, and the film is so dense with his portrayal of the Count, that the performance will forever be the benchmark by which all other Draculas must be judged, and rightly so.
Lugosi’s Dracula is menacing in every way possible. The actor’s thick accent makes him sound especially foreign, entirely detached from the good-natured Brits he encounters. He is both physical and ethereal in his presence; his face and body make him look like a swollen tick, ready to feed on the blood of the innocent, while his cape and hypnotic command cast him as a shade, a spectral vampire able to haunt as much as seduce.
And yet, though there is something alluring about Lugosi’s hungry eyes and pitch-black silhouette, Dracula is not the story’s misunderstood hero. He still defiles Lucy and Mina, and treats Renfield as both servant and nuisance. When he tells Van Helsing, “My blood now flows through her veins”, it is not to suggest he and Mina will be together through eternity, only that he has conquered yet another pathetic human.
Unlike Lee, Lugosi’s Dracula was the death of him. The actor was terribly underpaid for the role (Browning originally wanted Lon Chaney, which one can only dream about, but Chaney died before the film was made), he was immediately typecast, and he famously spiraled into drug addiction and poverty soon afterwards. But for 85 minutes, Bela Lugosi defined how we see Count Dracula, and the vampire in general, for all of eternity.