Top 10 Reasons Why Bela Lugosi Still Rules!

Many of you may not be aware of this–hell, I wasn’t until I stumbled across it on Amazon–but St. Clair Entertainment is putting out a 3-disc set on Tuesday entitled The Best of Bela Lugosi. But before all you classic horror buffs get your Lon Chaney underoos in a wad, I should point out that the set is really for Lugosi completists only, consisting mainly of the Hungarian actor’s later work in Poverty Row (still, you’re getting nine flicks for the price of one movie ticket, so it’s tough to beat.) I suspect that the selections, unfortunately, have a lot to do with rights and distribution issues. Which got me thinking: If I was putting out a true collection of “The Best of Bela Lugosi,” what would I include? Which is why I put together this list of the ten finest performances ever given by the guy who’s sadly only known by the mainstream public for one…

The Top 10 Reasons Why Bela Lugosi Still Rules
Don’t forget to check out our Top 10 Non-Zombies in a Zombie Film!

10. Pull the Strings! – Bride of the Monster (1955)

Despite director Edward D. Wood’s rep for colossally awful films, it’s impossible not to be riveted by Lugosi as the sinister Dr. Eric Vornoff, unspooling his plans to perfect “a race of atomic supermen”–whatever that means. Plus, he wrestles a giant rubber octopus, which just about clinches it.

9. Bela in the Bowery – Spooks Run Wild (1941)

A lot of folks point to flicks like this to illustrate how the master had fallen on hard times by resorting to “undignified” slapstick farce. And while it’s true his asking price probably wasn’t what it once was by this point, I still get a chuckle watching Lugosi mix it up with Leo Gorcey and the rest of the East Side Kids.

8. Leader of the Pack – The Wolf Man (1941)

Appearing alongside Lon Chaney Jr. for the very first time, Lugosi plays the unimaginatively named Bela, a gypsy cursed with a certain lycanthropic disorder that he manages to pass along to poor Larry Talbot. Unfortunately, we never get to see him in wolf get-up before his character is quickly dispatched via a silver cane.

7. The Original Kings of Horror – The Invisible Ray (1936)

This minor Universal gem is one of several team-ups of Lugosi with his counterpart and alleged arch-nemesis, Boris Karloff. Bela plays a low-down backstabber who steals his colleague’s invisibility technology and passes it off as his own. Unfortunately, he forgets about the tendency of invisible men to go crazy and seek violent revenge.

6. Lugosi Meets Lewton – The Body Snatcher (1945)

Blink and you’ll miss him, but Bela makes an impression with a rare understated performance as a handyman on the grounds of the medical school where much of the film’s action takes place. This would be his last on-screen appearance with Karloff.

5. Drac’s Back – Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Believe it or not, this was only the second and final time that Bela Lugosi would ever portray everyone’s favorite Carpathian Count on film. And while this is definitely A&C’s movie, the visibly grateful Bela puts in memorable work as the only person in the world who admires Lou Costello’s brain.

4. One of the Good Guys – The Black Cat (1934)

You don’t come across many 1930s flicks dealing with Satanism, but this is one of them. Plus, in the part of Dr. Vitus Verdegast, B.L. gets a rare opportunity to play a heroic role–and even gets to speak a few lines in his native Hungarian along the way.

3. Murder, She Wrote – White Zombie (1932)

Yes, I know I’m mentioning White Zombie two weeks in a row, but no list of stand-out Lugosi appearances would be complete without his turn as ghoul-master Murder Legendre, so sue me. In fact, this is the only pic on this list that St. Clair Entertainment actually included in its own collection.

2. What Hump? – Son of Frankenstein (1939)

At long last, Lugosi gets to do what it no doubt gave him perverse glee to do, and that’s completely upstage his more successful rival Karloff. Not to take away from Bela in the role of Ygor–or is it Eye-gor?–but Al Gore could’ve probably upstaged poor Boris in his woefully underwritten final turn as the big green guy.

and finally, the top reason why Bela Lugosi still rules…

1. I Am… – Dracula (1931)

I thought about being unpredictable and ironic, but there’s just no way around it. Bela Lugosi doesn’t just play Dracula. Bela Lugosi is Dracula. He’s become a cultural reference, like some kind of Jungian archetype. Perhaps no actor has so completely merged in the public consciousness with a character he portrayed (as much of a stigma as it was a ticket to immortality.) So back off, all you Lee-lovers and Oldman-amaniacs, and show some respect for the o.g. of the undead.

For more of my opinions on the world of horror, plus news and other interesting stuff, check out my daily blog, The Vault of Horror.

Don’t forget to check out our Top 10 Non-Zombies in a Zombie Film!