Bram Stoker once envisioned his most successful novel, Dracula, as a stage play. The actor he wanted to play the title role, Sir Henry Irving, walked out of the table read, yawning and griping about wordiness. It was probably the most auspicious walkout in horror entertainment history. Had Irving starred in a bomb, Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and quite a few other actors wouldn’t have been able to don the cape.
Dracula wasn’t the first book about vampires, but it was the first time Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes was portrayed as one. Until then, people thought of him as a cruel tyrant who nailed hats onto the heads of monks, and dipped his bread in the blood of vanquished soldiers. That is if they thought of him at all, outside of Romania, which celebrates him with pride as a freedom fighter and national protector, the “son of the dragon” who fought the Islamic Turks as they tried to conquer Transylvania and Wallachia. In the mid-1400s, the Pope loved Dracula, but let’s face it, he makes Luca Brasi in The Godfather look like a saint.
Dracula is a godsend to actors. He is the supreme villain, the most dangerous romantic lead, and the ultimate multidimensional character challenge. He can be charming or brutal, but he could also be a bat, a wolf, a wisp of smoke. Dracula could have the class of David Niven, who camped his way through 1975’s Vampira, or the brute strength of Dominic Purcell, who played Dracula as Drake in Blade: Trinity (2004). He can even be Judas Iscariot, at least according to Wes Craven and Gerard Butler. Alas, while Dracula does appear in the form of actor Charles Macaulay in the classic blaxploitation film Blacula, William Marshall played African prince Prince Mamuwalde in the title role. Nonetheless, we’ve seen many versions of the undead count.
Here are the 15 best Dracula performances for you.
15. Atif Kaptan in Dracula in Istanbul (1953)
Dracula in Istanbul (1953) is the fourth motion picture version of Bram Stoker’s novel, but premieres many details. Directed by Mehmet Muhtar, it was the first film version to show Dracula presenting his brides with a human baby for feeding, as well as the first attempt to capture Dracula’s reptilian crawl down Castle Dracula’s walls. It also made the first clear connection between Dracula and Vlad the Impaler.
The Turkish production featured one more cinematic breakthrough too. It is the first sound film to present Dracula with fanged teeth. Atif Kaptan’s Drakula doesn’t have Frank Langella’s hair and dispenses entirely with the manservant Renfield, but he has a unique charm. Under the pseudonym El Cross Abdullatif, he frequents the hottest night spots. The Mina character is named Güzin (Annie Ball) and is a dancer with a harem gimmick that doesn’t allow garlic necklaces. The Lucy of the piece is Sadan (Ayfer Feray), he is turned into a vampire who preys on children. The Van Helsing character is named Dr. Eren (Kemal Emin Bara), and his go-to vampire killer move is decapitation.
14. Francis Lederer in The Return of Dracula (1958)
Czech actor Francis Lederer played Count Dracula twice, as a modern vampire on the run in California in The Return of Dracula (1958), and on the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode “The Devil Is Not Mocked,” where evil meets evil. Dracula meets, greets, and eats SS officers who are searching his castle during World War II.
Lederer touched three different centuries: He was born in 1899, lived through the 1900s, and died in 2000. Director Paul Landres uses this longevity in service to the story. This Dracula has been around for a long time, and is a keen observer to modern problems. The Return of Dracula was one of the first to feature vampires transforming into wolves.
13. Leslie Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
The title character of Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) might seem an unlikely lead for a Mel Brooks comedy. The first Dracula is Vlad Tepeş, which means “the impaler,” a butcher who inflicted unspeakable tortures on peasants; cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes, and impaling them on iron spikes. But Leslie Nielsen not only makes it easy to forgive the bloodthirsty former despot; he also gets in the last word.
Nielsen reinvented himself as a comic lead after years of serious acting and brings authority and great timing to his Carpathian count, especially when doing the dance of the undead. The director plays Professor Van Helsing, a doctor of rare diseases as well as a man of theology and philosophy, who has his hand in gynecology, and Peter MacNicol’s Thomas Renfield can turn a cricket into a banquet, but Dracula: Dead and Loving It is no Young Frankenstein.
12. Jack Palance in Dracula (1974)
Jack Palance plays Vlad Tepes as a sensitive rebel with a taste for revenge to go along with his bloodthirst. Yes, he hisses, snarls, and bares his fangs, but doesn’t bite until bitten. Then he can trash a tomb like an outtake from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Palance cuts a fine figure in a black-on-black ensemble, with a midnight cape covering. This better frames him against the picturesque nighttime gardens, doorways, and arches where he most often appears.
Dracula (1974) director Dan Curtis was no stranger to vampires, inventing the gothic soap opera with Dark Shadows, which he followed up with a series of TV movies based on classic horror novels. Written by Richard Matheson, the scriptwriter for The Night Stalker, Dracula condenses Stoker’s novel into a tragic romance, with a love story that transcends death. In the Curtis version, Lucy (Fiona Lewis) is the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost bride, who he gifts with eternal life and the promise of better nights. It’s only after she’s staked that he sets his sights on Mina and those responsible for the tragedy. The Impaler is impaled in this tale, and the irony is not lost on the audience.
11. George Hamilton in Love at First Bite (1979)
Another fly by night character, George Hamilton seems too tan to play a bloodthirsty reanimated corpse. His Count Vladimir Dracula never drinks… wine, doesn’t smoke… shit, and has been going around looking like a head waiter for the past 700 years. But without him, Transylvania would be as exciting as Bucharest on a Monday night. His people tortured and murdered innocent peasants to clear the land, which makes it his. So when the Communist government of Romania converts Castle Dracula into a gymnastic camp in director Stan Dragoti’s Love at First Bite (1979), Dracula and his cockroach-eating manservant, Renfield (Artie Johnson) book accommodations in New York.
Hamilton’s Dracula enjoys himself immensely, both the actor and the character, who loves everything America has to offer, colorful discotheques, versatile sex clubs, and easily robbed blood banks. Richard Benjamin plays Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg, a distant relation of Dr. Van Helsing, as a schmendrick psychologist who can’t keep his horror lore straight. He shoots Dracula with three silver bullets, which only works on werewolves, and brandishes a Star of David, rather than a crucifix, at the undead man about town. The mysterious vampire is still a romantic at heart, and when he turns Susan Saint James’ Cindy Sondheim into a creature of the night, he vows no quickies, always longies, and an eternity of sleeping in.
10. Carlos Villarias in Dracula (1931)
While Bela Lugosi was making cinematic history by day in Dracula in 1931, Carlos Villarias was putting a hot Latin spin on it after hours. The Spanish-language version of the horror classic was shot on the same sets after the American version shut down for the night. Blood on a budget. It’s a vampire tradition.
Carlos Villarias is an interesting parallel to Lugosi. Romantic, lusty, his eyes disrobe every woman he comes in contact with. He wants to suck something, but a neck would have to do in the early thirties.
9. Louis Jourdan in Count Dracula (1977)
The French-born Louis Jourdan brings a contemporary flair to his Count Dracula and a subtle outsider’s magnetism. He is the perfect host, refined enough for Mina (Judi Bowker), with danger burning under the surface. New to the country, he has an aversion to assimilation. This speaks to his cultural cuisine of choice. “The blood of a human for me, a cooked bird for you. What is the difference,” he asks, and might as well be defending the use of chopsticks versus cutlery. Jourdan is linguistically framed by the Hungarian language, and Frank Finlay tinges his vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing with a passable Dutch accent, but that’s not where communication breaks down.
British TV’s 1977 Count Dracula is one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen. It is the first British adaptation to show Dracula pull an infant from a bag to feed his female companion. The crawl down the castle walls is a huge leap from Hammer’s Scars of Dracula (1970). Jourdan’s subdued menace brings subliminal suspense to an underseen gem.
8. Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)
Max Schreck played Count Orlok in Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror in 1922, not Dracula. Director F.W. Murnau couldn’t bag the book rights from the literary executor, Florence Balcombe, who has bragging rights to a seminal vampire title. The widow of Bram Stoker had once been engaged to Oscar Wilde, who wrote the cautionary immortality work The Picture of Dorian Gray, and entertained George du Maurier, who created the hypnotic Svengali for his book Trilby. Her crusade to burn Nosferatu became the stuff of legend. Cinematically, however, Max Schreck’s Count Orlok embodies the monsters lurking in the darkest projections of celluloid.
Schreck is a masterful monster. He looks like a rat, sniffs at the air like a rat, and the actor projects how that rat sense helped him survive through the ages. Bats are rats with wings, and the count with the rodent teeth brings the plague to London. With his gravity-bending coffin risings, and shadowy grasp, Count Orlok emerges directly from the collective subconscious of the nightmare realm, and continues to haunt our darkest dreams.
7. Frank Langella in Dracula (1979)
Frank Langella oozed sex on stage, celluloid, and I Love New York commercials in 1979. Backlit on horseback in the early morning sun, his ride from Broadway made him the first rock star Count Dracula. A bite on the neck is an orgasm to him, Langella’s reading of the “I never drink wine” line it doesn’t have the wit and menace of Bela Lugosi’s reading, but the 1979 Dracula has the best bare breast for a dragged fingernail of all the major vampires.
Director John Badham attempts to follow the play, but trips over the book, mixing up Lucy and Mina’s names. This is the first, and possibly only time we ever see Dracula stake Van Helsing, and it is long overdue. If ever there was an evil vampire hunter, it is Laurence Olivier. There was no reason to kill this screen version of Dracula., I’d argue there is no reason to kill any Dracula, but in this version, it’s just petty.
6. Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979)
Klaus Kinski may very well be a vampire. He certainly lived in an alternate universe where rules didn’t apply. Some actors are tortured. Others are tortuous. Kinski appears to be the latter. How better to capture a character that time and circumstance made a monster. Kinski’s vampire had no such vanities as fine features. Those had been stripped from him with the sun.
Kinksi delved into the animal that was the soul of Dracula unborn, and licked his wounds. He also licked Lucy, not Mina, in Werner Herzog’s homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterwork, Nosferatu, which couldn’t use any of the names from Stoker’s book. In Kinski, Herzog found a supernaturally gifted demon he could exorcize in front of a camera. The blood of Dracula ran in Kinski’s veins.
5. Udo Kier in Blood for Dracula (1974)
“The Blood of these whores is killing me.”
Blood for Dracula, better known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula, is an underrated comic horror masterpiece. More tongue-in-cheek than fang in mouth, it had a cameo by Roman Polanski, the director of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Udo Kier is one of the elite few actors to play both Count Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein. He is a Drankenstein. Blood for Dracula from 1974 was directed by Paul Morrissey and produced by Vittorio de Sica and Roman Polański.
The Warhol pictures aren’t Udo’s only horror bona fides. Udo played psychologist Dr. Frank Mandel in Dario Argento’s trippy 1977 horror classic Suspiria, he was in Blade and Shadow of the Vampire. Mike Cecchini adds, “And he was brilliant on Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated! He was the voice of a recurring bad guy (Professor Pericles, an evil talking parrot).”
4. Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula set out to do for the horror genre what The Godfather did for the gangster genre. Transform it into high art. It was closer to the book than most adaptations, but it took a few turns. If you’re going to change anything of the book at all, change the ending. If ever a Dracula deserved to live through this, just once, it was Gary Oldman.
Coppola showed Dracula at his most human. The man who was a warrior king, who did things so horrific he damned himself in the sight of God and love and everything decent. Then he was condemned to live. Lugosi captured the vibe of being condemned to life, but Oldman filled in the why.
Oldman’s Dracula is all about love. But it’s a tough love. A hard life. An un-life. But it is filled with thrills if you spill enough blood. Oldman savors the blood, makes it look delicious, like wine on The Sopranos. Winona Ryder might have been a little too zoned out as Mina, but she tasted wonderful.
3. John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)
John Carradine auditioned for the role of Dracula in the 1931 adaptation, but lost out to Bela Lugosi. Carradine would go on to play Count Dracula three times, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Billy the Kid vs Dracula. He played George the butler in Blood of Dracula’s Castle. He made a mean Bloody Mary.
House of Frankenstein starred Boris Karloff as Dr. Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr., who played Dracula in Son of Dracula, as the wolfman, Larry Talbot. To this day I’m creeped out by quicksand.
Carradine is a mesmerizing count in House of Dracula, telepathically guiding a young and beautiful piano player to lose herself in music, envisioning the world Dracula lives in. It is the best explanation on film of the world of the vampire. It is simple but with the propulsion of the music it paints a picture more colorful than black and white film could contain and color film spills in overflow. People are dead but alive, there is no material need, it is frightening at first, but once that passes you long to be there.
Dracula is getting infusions from a doctor whose credentials are suspect. There are two great transformations in House of Dracula, Dracula’s death and the doctor’s awakening as a vampire. House of Frankenstein is the better movie as a whole, but Carradine’s performance in House of Dracula is one of the best Draculas there is.
Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula is fun. For a while. Carradine looks like he stepped off Gilligan’s Island. In 1979’s Nocturna, John Carradine’s Dracula got to get down with Lily Munster, Yvonne De Carlo.
2. Christopher Lee in Hammer Dracula Movies
Christopher Lee is the Spaghetti-western-Clint-Eastwood of horror. He didn’t smoke a cheroot or spit chewing tobacco on the foreheads of his dead, but he squinted at the sunlight. Lee did for after-hours suave what Eastwood did for underplayed lone gun desperado. Christopher Lee’s Dracula didn’t say much, overcame ghastly odds and did it all on a tight budget.
Lee played the count in nine movies. He brought regal bearing, British sexual sadism, and old-world charm to a hero who has survived centuries on his wit and brutality. Starting in 1958 with a play on the Renfield story, Horror of Dracula was directed by Hammer horror master Terence Fisher and pitted Lee against the evil Peter Cushing for the first time.
Terence Fisher resurrected Dracula from the dead for Dracula: Prince of Darkness in 1966. Lee put the bite on Barbara Shelley.
Freddie Francis brought in the Catholic Church to exorcize Dracula’s castle in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave in 1968. Lee got to sow his wild oats eternally when Jesús Franco innovated on the return to youth angle in Count Dracula in 1970. Future Dracula Klaus Kinski and one-time Phantom of the Opera Herbert Lom joined in the fun.
Dracula taught rich Brits a thing or two about real decadence in Taste the Blood of Dracula in 1970. In Dracula A.D. 1972 the count fools London by simply spelling his name backwards as Johnny Alucard. The Satanic Rites of Dracula from 1973 had Lee matching wits with Scotland Yard, and in Dracula and Son he antiqued.
1. Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)
To die, to truly be dead. That must be glorious.
Bela Lugosi might not have been the best, or even the first, but he is the quintessential Dracula. Bela Lugosi was a Hungarian actor who made women swoon with sexual longing when he put on the cape in the original Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book.
Legend has it that he learned his lines phonetically, which gave his reading a distance that came from out of this world. When comedians do Dracula, they’re doing Gabe Dell’s original impersonation of Bela Lugosi’s seminal sucker.
Lugosi only played Dracula one other time, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. By that point in his career, he was a notorious junkie and Ian Keith was always waiting in the wings. Lugosi had a love-hate relationship with Dracula. A serious actor dedicated to his craft, Lugosi turned down the role of Frankenstein’s creature because he thought it below him…only to see Boris Karloff breathe life into a finely nuanced portrayal that was an actor’s dream.
Lugosi put on the cape over and over again, as an actor in Mark of the Vampire, as a magician in Spooks Run Wild, and as whatever he was supposed to be in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Lugosi was buried in his Dracula outfit. According to Kenneth Anger, the hearse carrying Lugosi’s body veered toward Hollywood and Vine on its way to the cemetery. Guided, I suppose, by Lugosi’s own hand, just as he drove the wagon in Dracula.