Long ago, I started a movie-by-movie tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now, as we conclude what would’ve been his 128th birthday, I’d finally like to continue this series with a few more roles. (For what it’s worth, I learned that The Vault of Horror had a post with the exact same name as mine, four months earlier. Great minds think alike…?) Tracing the path of Lugosi’s career through his landmark roles is really revelatory, since it not only shows the highs and lows of his professional life, but also maps out the anatomy of studio-era Hollywood. He moved from dizzying stardom at Universal in the 1930s to decades of typecasting, painkillers, and undignified appearances in Poverty Row garbage, followed by a brief resurrection with Ed Wood. It’s a strange story worthy of a horror movie itself. So, on to the faces…
White Zombie (1932)
This is less a film than an hour-long fever dream; it observes a pair of newlyweds in Haiti who fall under the sway of Murder Legendre, an enigmatic spellbinder who creates zombies to slave in the local sugar mill. At the behest of the couple’s rich host, Legendre reduces the bride (Madge Bellamy) to a pliant, mindless body, triggering a series of angry confrontations in a seaside castle. White Zombie is slow-paced and impressionistic, giving Bela enough room to work his spell on the bride and the audience. As Legendre, he’s malevolent but also cryptic, going methodically about his dark business without any wasted words. Although he’s neither the film’s prime mover nor its hero, he’s still its main focus – the deep, foreign presence at its center. It was in White Zombie that Bela originated the hypnotic hand gesture of which he later said, according to Ed Wood, “you must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”
The Black Cat (1934)
In the first of his many pairings with fellow legend Boris Karloff, Bela played a Hungarian veteran bent on revenge. Although he initially seems normal enough to the American couple he travels with, Bela’s Dr. Werdegast is actually a little mad – understandable given that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig stole away his wife and daughter while he was stuck in a prison camp. Bela’s eccentric, erratic performance fits right into this truly oneiric film, as scenes of relative quiet gives way to Black Masses and cat mutilations, and Karloff matches him tic for tic. When Vitus finally exacts his grisly revenge, it’s both satisfying and terrifying, a worthy culmination of a bizarre 65 minutes and a subtle but white-hot performance.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942)
Easily one of Bela’s most compelling Poverty Row vehicles (in this case, for Monogram), The Corpse Vanishes is defined by its eruptions of weirdness. For example: although they’re not vampires, Bela and his insane wife (the “sister” from Cat People, Elizabeth Russell) still sleep in coffins. The film pads its one-hour running time with a subplot about a plucky investigative reporter and the doctor she loves, but at its core is Bela as a mass-murdering flower expert who dwells in a house of horrors – including secret passageways, corpses, and a family of henchmen whose matriarch eventually turns on him. As usual, Bela’s character has a tragic wrinkle: he has been forced into his bizarre, deadly racket in order to scientifically preserve his wife’s beauty. Oh, Bela, always the gentleman.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
Generations of Ed Wood cultists have tried and failed to figure out what, exactly, Bela is doing in Glen or Glenda. The film is already a no-budget, quasi-documentary dream narrative about transvestites in the ultra-conservative 1950s. But Bela’s narration – if “narration” is the appropriate word – adds the extra, unquantifiable ingredient that throws the film into another territory altogether. Inexplicably surrounded by skeletons, bookshelves, and liquid-filled beakers that summon up a horror film milieu, Bela comments vaguely on the follies of mankind: “One is wrong, because he does right; one is right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!” He delivers these lines with such emphasis that you assume there must be rich, philosophical meaning behind them. And, well, maybe there is.
In each of his performances, Bela elevated the film he was in with his mystical, alien persona. With his thick accent, the fierce look in his eyes, and the subtle curve of his eyebrows, Bela could turn the most routine, cheap mad scientist movie into a vortex of mounting weirdness. And in a film like The Black Cat or Glen or Glenda, where the weirdness was implicit in the director’s vision, Bela could eradicate what little sanity was left and transform the film into a sublime if confusing experience. His beautiful Hungarian voice took Ed Wood’s out-of-this-world screenplay for Glen or Glenda and turned its hallucinogenic dialogue into cult film scripture. Happy birthday, Bela.