Bela, Bela, Bela
Of all the classic horror stars, Bela Lugosi still fascinates people in ways that mystifies me. There was one documentary I saw about him that concluded with the "fact" that Bela's movie memorabilia sold for more higher prices that items from films featuring Boris Karloff – therefore concluding that Bela's legacy is greater than Karloff's.
Perhaps Bela's stuff does cost more and I suppose a cruise through eBay might bolster this claim, but that doesn't mean he was a better actor or appeared in superior movies.
Lugosi was a trained actor and a veteran of the stage but, in my opinion, he never seemed to really be able to communicate in English as effectively as other immigrant actors of his time, such as Peter Lorre, for instance. Looking at his career choices he seemed dead set at being the leading man, unlike Karloff who sought supporting roles in non-horror films through his career.
At his best, Lugosi seemed to truly inhabit his characters with a gusto that other screen monsters seldom mustered. Many actors attempted to give their villains some elements of sympathy or characteristics that made them more three-dimensional.
Not Bela. His guys were bad and twisted to the bone.
I think his fans didn't want three dimensions. They wanted some very foreign guy whose voice and manners hinted at sinister things they dare not imagine.
While "Dracula," the film role that both made him and broke him all at the same time, is a must-see for any serious horror fan, I think "White Zombie" may be his best starring role while his Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein" was his best character role.
"White Zombie," was a independent production made by the Halpern brothers in 1932. Lugosi is "Murder Legendre" the zombie master on a Caribbean island who is asked by a man who falls in love with a pretty young thing (played by silent film star Madge Bellamy) to turn her into a zombie so she would only love him.
Even for 1932, the film has a creaky look and feel to it, which actually seems to work in its favor. It seems to be more of a fairy tale than a horror film in some regards.
The zombies themselves are not the brain-eating ghouls we all know and love, but shambling robots used as free labor on the sugar plantations.
Here's a re-issue trailer for the film.
If you want to buy the very best DVD of this public domain film go to the Roan Group site and buy their version.
© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs