Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula

If you ever enjoyed Bela Lugosi in good movies and bad movies, you owe it to yourself to catch this respectful, brief (55 minutes) documentary that places him in historical context. Did you know that Lugosi, a versatile stage actor in Hungary, once played Jesus in a passion play? Or that he acted in a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a pre-Nosferatu F.W. Murnau? Photos of both are here, as well as footage from many ancient silent films Lugosi did before he played the role that would forever define him. The documentary establishes that Lugosi fell from grace not once but twice — he began as a serious actor known for appearing in classic plays or as romantic leads, and then Dracula changed all that; then, once trapped in Hollywood’s conception of him as “the master of menace,” he couldn’t get any other type of work, and when horror went through a dry spell in the ’40s, that meant Lugosi had to take what he could get. It often meant a depressing amount of self-parody.

Writer-director Gary D. Rhodes takes Lugosi right up to the sordid end, a pain-wracked morphine addict pathetically grateful to be a part of Ed Wood’s foolishness, yet the documentary leaves you not with sadness but with respect for a man who only wanted to work. Acting was his passion and his life, and if he had to get dissed by Milton Berle on TV or flail around with a rubber octopus in order to stay in the game, so be it. Narrated by Robert Clarke, with Rue McClanahan reading various gushing movie-mag Lugosi articles of the day. The DVD’s special features include 30 minutes of deleted scenes (technically bringing the documentary to about feature-length) and various Lugosi rarities; it comes with a CD containing some vintage Lugosi radio work.

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