Saturday, October 20, 2012

Monsterology: The Lugosi Vampire

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

“I bid you… velcome…”

Suave and imposing and dapperly attired in evening wear, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a far more explicit link between sex and death than any movie monster before him. His portrayal is often pinpointed as ground zero for our modern conception of the vampire, the one that sexily sexes up teenage girls in books written just for teenage girls (they weren’t made for you grown ups, so stop reading them!). As described by Stoker, Dracula was certainly sexual (if being breast-fed blood by a man is your idea of sexy), but physically, he was pretty grotty. Stoker’s Dracula was a gaunt, dome-headed creep with a unibrow, “rank” breath, and hairy palms (sexy!). While Lugosi may not make girls who swoon over Robert Pattinson pee their pants, he was in his day, quite the heartthrob. Tall, dark, European, and bearing an undeniable charisma, he even caught The It Girl in his thrall, enjoying a brief affair with Clara Bow after she saw him own the stage in Horace Liveright’s production of Dracula.

                                                             The It Girl.

Lugosi was keen to keep his refined features unobstructed by fangs or furry applications when he brought his vampire to the screen for Universal. Film historians love to speculate about how Dracula might have looked had Lon Chaney lived long enough to portray him. They often imagine a count more along the lines of the terrifying pseudo-vamp Chaney played in London After Midnight, with his buggy eyes and razor teeth. Maybe he would have looked something like Max Schreck’s even scarier bald, rat-like count in Nosferatu. Or maybe Chaney would have gone to the source text and based his creature on Stoker’s hairy-palmed menace. Driven by vanity— and perhaps unconsciously recognizing a powerful image when he created one— Lugosi would have none of this. Lugosi’s Dracula just looked like Lugosi, not even sporting the exaggerated widow’s peak he’d wear in Mark of the Vampire, the 1935 remake of London After Midnight.

Lugosi's seductive gaze in Mark of the Vampire; Chaney goes "Boo!" in London After Midnight.

Following Nosferatu and London After Midnight, Lugosi’s Dracula must have seemed like a radical rewrite of the vampire. However, there had been dashing, even beautiful, vampires even before Stoker’s novel was published in 1897. The genre’s first significant fiction was Dr. John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819). Dr. John began his story at that same fateful Swiss getaway that saw Mary Shelley conceive Frankenstein. Despite a ghastly pallor, the “form and outline” of Lord Ruthven’s face are “beautiful” and “many of the female hunters… attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection…”  The cutesy-pie named Varney in James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847)—with his “dreadful eyes,” “horrible” face, and “hideous” teeth— was more akin to the creature Stoker would create, but the title character of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) was “pretty, even beautiful,” and up for some lesbian action intended to titillate readers also invited to condemn her “unnatural” desires; that way everyone could get their rocks off while still feeling morally superior.

Lugosi was not the first good-looking, sexually attractive vampire, but he refined the vampire concept so powerfully and pervasively that he nearly negated the very option that these creatures could be anything less than Playgirl-ready. The ugly vampires of cinema future usually paid explicit homage to Max Schreck (Reggie Nalder’s Kurt Barlow in Salem’s Lot, Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht). More commonly, we could expect super hunks like Christopher Lee, Louis Jordan, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman to don the cape. Perhaps Anne Rice put the final nail in the ugly count’s coffin, opening the crypt door for Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to take vampire attractiveness to absurd extremes in Interview with the Vampire, and paving the Borgo Pass for Robert Pattinson’s dreamy-weamy Eddie “Munster” Cullen in Twilight.

So should Lugosi be praised or condemned for so assuredly re-vamping the vampire for generations to come? Well, it is what it is, and maybe sexing up the vamp is not even his greatest crime, for he is responsible—unintentionally, of course—for thick, Hungarian accents intoning “I vant to suck your blaahd!” or simply “Blah!” or other such nonsense that appears nowhere in Tod Browning’s film. Without Lugosi, there would be no Groovie Goolie Drac, no Count von Count (“Von bat! Tooo bats! Ha, ha, ha!”), no Count Chocula (“Vith chocolate flavored sweeties!”), and no Count Blah (“Blah!”).

What Lugosi hath wrought.

Yet Dracula, has not suffered by such parodies. Only Sherlock Holmes rivals him as the character most often depicted on screen. The count remains un-alive and well in the 21st century, goofing around in the current cartoon Hotel Transylvania and ready to re-sex y’all as embodied by sexy sexer Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a T.V. series slated to air on NBC next year. While the timelessness of Stoker’s novel must take some credit, Lugosi’s equally timeless portrayal of Dracula is just as responsible for the character’s unbelievable longevity. That’s quite a supernatural achievement.

Bela Lugosi was born 130 years ago today.
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