The choice of May 26 for World Dracula Day is not random: it was the date in 1897 when Bram Stoker’s original novel was published. We thought we would use the occasion to pay brief tribute to some of the many actors who have donned fangs to essay the undead character. I briefly considered ranking them but found the job impossible. One is confronted not with a scale of “best to worst” but a range of interesting interpretations. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a version that I hated.
The star of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, a pirated version of Dracula, and undoubtedly the most striking and the most monstrous. While Schreck’s Count Orlok isn’t necessarily the best screen Dracula (though one could make that case), the movie itself comes close to being the best film adaptation of the novel. I consider it one of the most watchable of all non-comic silent features. More about it here. In 2000 Willem Dafoe played Schreck as Orlock in the film Shadow of a Vampire.
Lugosi was the first officially sanctioned Dracula, playing him first on Broadway in 1927, then in the 1931 Universal film (and some sequels), and then playing several, shall we say, Draculaesque vampires without anyone’s permission. For decades, his was considered the iconic, really the ONLY, Dracula. Amazing to consider today that the rationale behind Lugosi’s initial casting was that he would be a dashing, attractive Dracula, as compared with Schreck’s ugly, monstrous one. But he was so indelible in the role that today it is impossible for most people to consider him dashing or attractive any more. He’s just Dracula — creepy and scary.
Fresh off the success of The Wolf Man, the lovable lummox was tapped to be Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943). I think I can go ahead on signing off on Chaney as the worst Dracula, lacking either European charm OR a terrifying uncanny quality. In MY Universal Dracula picture, I’d probably cast him as Second Gravedigger or “Man in Inn”.
Carradine was a much better Dracula than Chaney, playing him not only in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), but perhaps most memorably in the 1966 psychotronic masterpiece Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!
6’5″ Christopher Lee redefined the character yet again in a series of Hammer Horror pictures beginning with Horror of Dracula (1958). Hammer revived the idea of Dracula as a sex symbol — if anything, increasing that element. Color also meant the introduction of lots of red, red blood. It was Lee who finally broke the stranglehold of Lugosi on the public’s imagination (Lugosi’s dominance had easily survived the performances of Carradine and Chaney, who always seemed like stand-ins).
Yes! Believe It…or Not! Jack Palace played the Transylvania bloodsucker as part of a series of made-for-TV horror movies directed by Dan Curtis, creator of Dark Shadows. He’s quite good in this low-key, straightforward telling of the tale.
The French actor brought continental seductiveness to the role in the 1977 BBC mini-series Count Dracula. Dracula by way of Casanova!
Kinski essentially recreates Schreck’s Nosferatu performance in this interesting 1979 Werner Herzog film. I saw this one at the local art house when it first came out!
This is the American sexy disco Dracula! In 1977, a 50th anniversary revival of the Hamilton Deane play was mounted on Broadway starring Langella and it was a huge hit. In 1979 it came out as a successful movie. In addition to being probably the most attractive of all Draculas, Langella’s is also the most three dimensional. His version is less stylized and more psychological and even (briefly) sympathetic.
Oldman’s performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is the only I can think of that replicates the dual nature of Dracula’s appearance as described by Stoker in the book: fine if weird looking when you first meet him, more unambiguously monstrous later. The film was Francis Ford Coppola’s biggest success post-Apocalypse Now, and justifiably so — he appears to have put more thought and energy into it than in any film since the failure of One from the Heart, a decade earlier. It’s a stylish outing, and Oldman chews the scenery as though it were a neck containing warm blood!
I REALLY loved the three-part 2020 BBC/Netflix deconstruction of the Dracula legend, not leastways because I fully expected that I would be bored and it would contain nothing new. But this fresh version was full of too many surprises to count, including a female Van Helsing played by Dolly Wells, a time jump to the present in the third act, lots of thrilling and original visual effects, and a memorable portrayal of the title character by Danish actor Claes Bang that’s simultaneously chilling, humorous, and palpably libidinous. He reminded me quite a lot of James Mason. This version immediately leapfrogged over most previous portrayals and is now one of my favorites.
There are naturally many other stage and screen Draculas beyond this but in the name of sanity I artificially cut it off here. Go here for my post on all the comedy Draculas!