The Many Faces of Bela Lugosi

I love Bela Lugosi. He was a towering, menacing icon of horror, yet so tragically human in every performance and his dark personal life. He had the sadness of poverty and addiction inscribed on his face as he played ghouls and mad scientists; he was the missing link between the twin horrors of B-movies and the real world. And now several generations, myself included, have grown up watching his revelatory performances broadcast late at night on local TV. So even though he may have been relegated to Hollywood’s underworld for most of his career, he’s been a cult figure since shortly after his death. Bela has meant so much to so many, from goth rockers to Tim Burton to every stripe of horror fan, and it makes me wonder: who is Bela, what is he?

So, in keeping with our new desire to make more visually-oriented posts, I want to look at some of Bela Lugosi’s faces. He may not have had the superhuman versatility of Lon Chaney, Sr., but Bela nonetheless darted from role to role – often several within a single year – playing villains, antiheroes, monsters, and confused old men. Bela’s screen persona is prismatic, reflecting different meanings and attitudes depending on how you examine it. Let’s see what a few screen shots can tell us about this fascinating, shadowy man.

The Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Moreau: “What is the law?” Sayer of the law: “Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?” Who could’ve been more appropriate as the leader of the humanimals in Paramount’s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau? Despite spending 25 years as a villain in horror movies, Bela was rarely covered in makeup; instead he relied on his intensely expressive face and thick accent. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a notable exception.) But as one of the bad doctor’s half-human creations, he gave a powerful voice to their suffering and rebellion. He only appears briefly in the film, yet his performance totally overwhelms the majority of his human co-stars; only Charles Laughton makes anywhere near the same impression. Bela’s presence, as a star in a non-star role, adds worlds to the film’s horror, and shows an artist of fear at work.

The Devil Bat (1940)

I’ve seen this movie an unreasonable amount of times, especially considering that it’s an ultra-cheap, nonsensical quickie from the Poverty Row studio PRC. Yet for all its intrinsic absurdity, The Devil Bat (one of many bat-themed titles made up to that point) is bizarrely compelling. The main – OK, sole point of interest is Bela’s performance as a perfume researcher who’s cheated by his employers. As revenge, naturally, he sets his flock of trained killer bats on them. The film overflows with hilarious badness, right down to a newspaper headline that messes up the name of the reporter protagonist, but at its heart, it’s all about Bela. He retains his gravitas in the most embarrassing films, somehow elevating his scenes beyond the low-budget monotony surrounding them. Even as a mass murderer, he’s a beacon of wounded humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

The Wolf Man (1941)

A latecomer to the Universal horror cycle, The Wolf Man is most often remembered for Jack Pierce’s makeup, Curt Siodmak’s mythology-defining screenplay, and Maria Ouspenskaya’s performance as the gypsy sage Maleva. But Bela also appears for one scene, playing Maleva’s cursed son, who mauls a woman before being struck down by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s silver cane. With sorrow in his eyes, he’s fittingly the bearer of Old World magic and fatalism who infects the once-happy Chaney. His brief presence here is strange, considering that he was by then a hard-working horror mainstay (he’d literally been in dozens of movies and serials since Dracula). But somehow with only a couple minutes of screen time, he makes the existence of werewolves plausible, and with Ouspenskaya’s help, provides the emotional impetus for the film’s central conflict. Bela could make bad movies entertaining, and good movies even better.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Infamously, Bela’s last years of acting were spent largely at the side of reputed “worst director of all time” Edward D. Wood, Jr. Bride of the Monster is the second and least-known of their collaborations, and offers up just as many nuggets of incompetence as the others. In the midst of this silly, overwrought cinematic maelstrom is, as usual, Bela’s mad scientist with an axe to grind and a flair for soliloquies. Lugosi started out doing Shakespeare in pre-WWI Budapest, and in his own twisted way, he was the Olivier of monster movies, with his own Z-grade Macbeth and Richard III. In Bride, he’s the cherry on top of Wood’s hysterically nonsensical Cold War concoction. He bosses around the behemoth Lobo (Tor Johnson); he waxes poetic about building a “race of atomic supermen”; and he faces his own nuclear demise. Yet at the film’s core is a sad, elderly man giving it one more go. Maybe this was Lugosi’s King Lear.

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