Dracula is one of the most prolific monsters in all of cinema. Which portrayals of this legendary vampire have stood out from the pack?
In the realm of pop culture, there seem to exist certain characters and stories that pop up again and again. Think Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Frankenstein. However, few tales have had the same storied history as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This vampire count is one of the most recognizable villains in the world of entertainment, and it seems like we can’t go a year without seeing another writer’s interpretation of him.
Everyone seems to want a crack at the Prince of Darkness. Now, with Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat offering their take in the form of a Netflix miniseries, I figured that it’s as good a time as ever to look back at some of the most effective portrayals that have come throughout the years.
5. Bela Lugosi – Dracula (1931 Film)
They say you never forget your first. While it could be argued that 1922’s Nosferatu presented Dracula in everything but name, it was the 1931 Universal film that popularized the Prince of Darkness and cemented his place forever in the cultural zeitgeist. Lugosi’s Dracula is one of the most iconic villains in cinema, with his thick accent, slick appearance, and general theatricality practically becoming synonymous with the character.
You might think that diminishes the effect of this performance, but no. He’s still as creepy as ever. His unnaturally vertical posture, precise manner of speech, and piercing gaze make him feel otherworldly, like a creature attempting to imitate a human being. In conjunction, his dignified demeanor and lord-like superiority ooze a powerful confidence; he commands the screen and causes everyone else to feel small in comparison.
What does this all amount to? Well, being around him is unnerving, but you can’t quite pinpoint why that is. What you do know is that he’s always the most formidable one in the room. That alone is disarming enough, but when such a sensation comes from an unknown, it only strengthens the effect.
4. Gary Oldman – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 Film)
This version really plays up the tragedy behind the monster. His Dracula comes off as someone who hates what he is. His romance with Mina reminds him of happier times with his late wife, but he does not want to subject her to the same immortal suffering that plagues him. It’s a golden opportunity for pathos, and Oldman takes full advantage of that.
Even with all of the flashy makeup, hairstyles, and costumes, he shines through with his operatic sorrow, passionately capturing everything from nuanced uncertainty and unhinged emotional breakdowns. Essentially, he treats it like a piece of Shakespearean theatre, making for a deeply affecting, if somewhat showy, take on the iconic villain.
3. Graham McTavish – Castlevania (2017 TV Series)
You might think it’s cheating to put a voiceover performance on here, especially one in a video game adaptation, but any inhibitions will soon be forgotten when you listen to what this underrated Scottish actor does with the role. After his healer wife is burned at the stake for witchcraft, Vlad Tepes calls on all the powers of Hell to help him ravage the land of Wallachia.
The resulting rage is brilliantly conveyed by McTavish. Every word is said with such conviction that you feel the overpowering need for vengeance endemic to the character. What’s arguably more effective, however, is the emotional emptiness that he conveys later as his conquest is being carried out. His Dark Prince is on a constant quest for satisfaction and peace, and the fact that he finds neither is what fuels this performance so poignant.
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2. Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Dracula (2013 TV Series)
This rendition of Dracula seeks to destroy his enemies through both physical and economic means, posing as an American industrialist to infiltrate the high society of Europe. As such, he is forced to maintain a façade, leading to a very layered performance.
Meyers has a sense of enigmatic charm that informs his take on the character. His natural intrigue and focused intensity make him a magnetic presence onscreen, but the glimpses beneath the surface are what make his Dark Prince so compelling. The subtleties in his face give hints of both sorrow and danger, always making it somewhat unnerving to be around him.
This is only amplified when the mask finally comes off. As his anger erupts, he lashes out with psychotic unpredictability, similar to what he brought to Henry VIII in The Tudors yet distinctly more primal in its vibe. What this all amounts to is a Dracula with much more depth to his personality than you might expect. Because of this, he’s able to draw you in while constantly keeping you on edge.
1. Christopher Lee – All of his Dracula films from 1958 to 1976
Do you know why this imposing individual played Dracula longer than any other actor? Put simply, he was perfect. On top of physically embodying Bram Stoker’s creation to a tee, Lee’s Prince of Darkness has everything that you could want in the infamous vampire. The fact that he inhabited the role for so long enabled him to tackle the character from nearly every conceivable angle.
Whether it be the ancient warrior proud of his ancestry, the regretful widower longing for his lost love, the theatrical sadist who likes to toy with his victims, or the instinctual monster that hungers for blood, Lee has played them all, giving each one the same formidable degree of weight and fear. Even when the script leaves much to be desired, he seems to put ample care and attention into every performance.
His serpentine movements give him a demonic element; his articulate dialect, cold voice, straight posture provide an air of sophistication and authority; his intimidating glare and slow baring of his teeth are elementally frightening in how animalistic yet focused they are. All in all, Christopher Lee has proven time and time again to be the quintessential Dracula while simultaneously making the role completely his own, which is exactly why he tops this list.
Were you petrified by these performances? What are some of your favorite renditions of the iconic vampire? Let us know in the comments.
All three episodes of the BBC’s Dracula miniseries are now available for streaming on Netflix.