On This Day In Horror History: RIP Bela Lugosi


Better a day late than never, today in horror history we remember icon Bela Lugosi who died August 16th, 1956 while filming Plan 9 From Outer Space. Born as Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko on October 20, 1882  in Hungary, 50 miles away from Transylvania and Poenari castle (the legendary home of Vlad the Impaler), Lugosi ran away from home to work odd jobs, including stage acting. Settling in the small mining town of Resita, he became so entranced with a touring theatrical group that he set his heart on becoming an actor. “They tried to give me little parts in their plays, but I was so uneducated, so stupid, people just laughed at me,” he recalled, “but I got the taste of the stage. I got, also, the rancid taste of humiliation.” 

Handsome, mysterious, alluring, and haunting, audiences gasped as he spoke his first lines.

In 1898, Lugosi’s raw talent earned him a prime spot in a traveling theater company. Soon after, he was accepted into Hungary’s Academy of Performing Arts with a specialty in Shakespearean acting. In 1913, he joined the Hungarian National Theater where he performed in several Shakespeare plays as well as performing roles in Cyrano de Bergerac and Faust. As time went by, Lugosi gradually transitioned from theater to the rapidly growing Hungarian silent film industry.

Finding himself on the wrong side of the Hungarian Revolution in 1919, Lugosi fled to Germany where he quickly began working in German cinema. His most notable film at that time was the 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he played The Head of Janus.

But despite his success in Germany, Lugosi decided to move to the United States. After some time working on the stage and in silent films, he accepted a roll in the American theatrical run of Dracula. Lugosi infused the role with his own style, rendering it unlike any Dracula that had come before. Handsome, mysterious, alluring, and haunting, audiences gasped as he spoke his first lines. As the play toured the country between 1928 and 1929, Lugosi once described how they had to keep  “nurses and physicians in the theater every night… for the people in the audience who faint.”

With the advent of “talking pictures,” Universal studios approached Lugosi, wanting him to star in a film adaptation of the play. The resulting 1931 film was a smash hit and forever immortalized Lugosi’s chilling portrayal of Dracula. Still to this day, Lugosi is idolized for his role as the iconic monster.

In the aftermath of Dracula, Lugosi found himself typecast as a horror villain. He continued to appear in Universal films such as  The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Son of Frankenstein, and Black Friday, where he found himself with second billing below Boris Karloff. Lugosi also appeared in Victor Halperin’s White Zombiewhich is often cited as the first zombie movie.

Despite his popularity with audiences, Lugosi’s career began to decline; a British ban on horror films caused Universal to drop them from their schedule and Lugosi found himself relegated to B-grade thrillers. Lugosi’s career was briefly revived after a theater ran a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstien, which was so successful that Lugosi was asked to appear in person, thrilling audiences who had previously not been aware of him. Universal took note and re-released the two now classic horror films and hired Lugosi to play Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. 

But the revival was short-lived and Lugosi found himself once again at the bottom of the pack. As a result of chronic sciatica, Lugosi became dependent on opiates to relieve his pain. Though he continued to appear in films such as  Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, Lugosi spent much of his adult life deeply mired in debt. At age 73, Lugosi died of a heart attack and was buried in his Dracula cape.

Despite his frustration over being typecast, we in the horror community will always love him for bringing us the one true Dracula. Rest in piece, Bela Lugosi.