A dark outfit, a disturbing look, a tormented soul, a cryptic atmosphere… Béla Lugosi popularized modern Gothic aesthetics. Kitsch actor of the 1930s, adored by Tim Burton, he is the spiritual grandfather of Wednesday Addams, the youngest of the macabre family imagined by Charles Addams in the 1930s.
“Somewhere everyone knows him because when you take Count Dracula’s Halloween costumes, it’s Béla Lugosi’s face that you findsays Victor Provis, gothic rock specialist. Even if Béla Lugosi remains known only to geeks who love 1930s horror films or cheesy 1950s B series.”
The Dracula of Lugos
Béla Blaskó was born in Hungary in 1882. After being mobilized during the war, he frequented expressionist Berlin in the 1920s. He played one of his first film roles in a film by Murnau. Then the actor tries his luck in the United States by playing supporting foreign roles: Indian, Arab sheikh, marabout.
At the same time, it was at the theater that he acquired a certain fame, interpreting Dracula, in the version of the novelist Bram Stoker. “He speaks very bad English, he has a strong accent, it gives him an exotic side”, recalls Victor Provis. He adopted the name of his native town, Lugos, and broke into the cinema in 1931 again under the guise of Dracula, but that of Tod Browning this time, a huge success in theaters.
“It brings both a shift of kitsch and at the same time a lot of seriousnessexplains Victor Provis. There are legends that circulated around Béla Lugosi that he took his role so seriously that he slept in a coffin, he had cobwebs in his room, etc. All this mythology that we will find later with gothic rock artists like Marilyn Manson for example.”
Allan Poe, Frankenstein… Then series B
This is the golden age of horror films from Universal Monsters studios, with their backdrops of cardboard castles, plastic bats and fake cobwebs. Béla Lugosi becomes the face of several adaptations of 19th century Gothic literature through cinema, works by Edgar Allan Poe, fantastic stories, evoking death and immortality.
He was even offered to play in the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which he refused, for fear of being locked into this kind of role. But the actor is intoxicated by his dazzling success. He falls into all excesses: alcohol, drugs, adultery, megalomania. Victor Provis summarizes: “The myth of the vampire, who is an eternal seducer, comes out at night which will seduce many women, it will resonate with the psychology of Béla Lugosi who was reputed to be a seducer, he was married five times and led a very dissolute life…”
The fashion for these films declined after the war, they were relegated to broke B series. Béla Lugosi, who has never been able to diversify, is outdated, considered a “freak”, a marginal and anachronistic actor, out of step with his time. His career was reduced to cameos and even self-parody, until his death in 1956 from a heart attack at the age of 73. Andy Warhol pays homage to this kitsch figure with his work, “The Kiss”.
The Bauhaus resurrection
But Béla Lugosi “returned” from beyond the grave in 1979, with an English post-punk group, Bauhaus, whose members were fans of horror films and German expressionist cinema. The song, an ode to immortality, takes up all the clichés of vampiric folklore, not without a certain ironic distance specific to the punk movement…
Without daring to ask
“There are bands that laid the foundations of gothic rock beforesays Victor Provis. Gloria Mundi in 1978 or Siouxsie and the Banshees but it’s true that for rock historians, the Bauhaus single marks the starting point of this movement since it combines sound and image.”
Freak filmmaker Tim Burton pays homage to Béla Lugosi in his film about 1950s filmmaker Ed Wood. “Tim Burton likes all characters that are a bit wacky. He is going to be more interested in the “beautiful losers”concludes Victor Provis. Tim Burton has left a very strong mark in popular culture. There is a whole Gothic aesthetic that we will find today”.