2018 Film Essays

Bela and Boris as Bela and Boris: Postmodern Icons in Early Horror

The first words that Bela Lugosi says in his iconic performance as the eponymous vampire in Tod Browning’s 1931 film are “I am Dracula.” This feels like a fitting overture to Lugosi’s career, one that, for better or worse, would forever be living in the shadow of the vampire that he played to perfection. Lugosi’s version of Dracula is an icon; on screen, it is more than just a single character, but an extension of Lugosi himself, in a way that modern actors are now associated with certain roles and franchises. This enduring connection between the actor and the Count creates a postmodern link with some of his other work. By continually playing vampires after his breakthrough performance in Dracula, Lugosi, knowingly or otherwise, manipulates the iconography of vampires around himself, creating performances that are self-aware, more about him than the characters that he plays.

This self-aware performance is evident in another Tod Browning film, Mark of the Vampire (1935). In this film, Lugosi plays the enigmatic Count Mora; a man has been killed, and the village suspects that Mora, apparently a vampire, is responsible. The film takes place in the year in which it was filmed, rather than in the gothic past. But still, the characters claim that vampires are real, with one even saying that there are “studies from the University of Prague” that confirm vampires to be fact, rather than fiction. Lugosi has no dialogue until the final moments of the film, existing truly as an icon, as a version of both a vampire and of himself. When he first appears in Mark of the Vampire, there is the same focus on him as there is in Dracula, attention is paid to his languid physicality and piercing gaze. Even his costume is similar; it would be easy to think that Lugosi had literally stepped from shooting Dracula straight into Mark of the Vampire without a moment of rest. In one sequence, Lugosi creeps along a corridor, terrorising the staff of a large estate. While he walks, he moves his cape aside with a flourish. Underneath is a costume that is so like the one that Lugosi wore in 1931, that distinguishing between Dracula and Mora becomes almost impossible, even though the two obviously inhabit different films. The moment seems to serve as a reminder that the character of Dracula is always lurking just beneath the surface of Lugosi’s other performances.

It isn’t just the design of Mark of the Vampire, with its dilapidated castles, bat transformations and endless fog, that creates an almost uncanny link with Lugosi as both performer and Dracula. By juxtaposing a contemporary setting with the aesthetics of a gothic horror film, Browning seems to be creating a knowingly postmodern aesthetic, with Bela’s vampire at the centre of it. Mark of the Vampire climaxes in a bizarre, hypnosis-induced final set piece, in which the real killer is revealed. In a strange final twist, it is revealed that neither Mora, nor his daughter, are vampires. Instead, the whole thing was an act, designed as a way to make the real killer reveal himself. Only now, when the façade of vampirism has been peeled away, does Lugosi speak, saying “this vampire business, it has given me a great idea for a new act. Luna, in the new act, I will be the vampire. Did you watch me? I gave all of me. I was greater than any real vampire.” With the mask of performance literally being pulled off of Mora’s face with the film’s final twist, it is impossible not to think that you’re watching the actor underneath, Bela himself, delivering these lines. The last moments of Mark of the Vampire reframe it, changing it from a gothic thriller with a truly unexpected final act, into a metafictive comment on Lugosi’s work. With Mora revealed to be an actor, and vampirism debunked as superstition and performance, the audience is faced with the man who made the Count into a silent icon for almost the entirety of the film. In a way, nobody other than Lugosi could have played Mora, or have delivered those final lines in such a way; Lugosi presents himself to the audience, a man who truly gave his all in order to be “greater than any real vampire,” getting closer to immortality than the creatures themselves by simply pretending to be one. In fact, Bela’s vampires have reached a certain level of immortality; bloodsuckers throughout pop culture, from the eponymous count in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, to Alucard in the Castlevania video game series, are indebted to the look and manner of Lugosi’s Dracula.

If Lugosi seems to appear as himself in the final moments of Mark of the Vampire, then Boris Karloff one-ups his occasional on-screen partner by playing a version of himself for the entirety of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets. Karloff plays Byron Orlok (presumably a reference to the count in Nosferatu), an ageing horror star who decides to retire after completing his final film, The Terrora real film that stars Boris Karloff, directed by Roger Corman, and released in 1963. Throughout Targets, there are references to Karloff’s career. In one sequence, Byron and Sammy (who directed Byron in The Terror, and is played by Bogdanovich) watch some scenes from The Criminal Code, a 1931 film that, along with Frankenstein that same year, served to help Karloff break through as a performer.

It isn’t just the clever postmodern nods to Karloff’s body of work that reveals Byron Orlok to be a version of the actor. The ways in which Orlok describes his feelings of obsolescence reveal a man who represents the horror of another age, one set in stark contrast with the senseless killing spree that collides into Orlok’s world in the climax of the film. After announcing his retirement, Orlok says to Sammy “anybody can walk through the special effects for you,” a nod to the makeup-heavy roles that turned Karloff into an icon decades earlier. He then goes on to describe himself as “an antique […] an anachronism.” Just like Bela’s silent Mora is an icon of horror, so too is Orlok himself, constantly referring to himself in the past tense, as something that seems to exist only in iconography, with no real impact on people anymore. Orlok says “no-one’s afraid of a painted monster.” This age-old creature, who has entered popular consciousness by now, presents no real threat, more of a Ghost of Christmas Past than anything else.

The shifting landscape of horror in Targets — with Orlok on one end of it and the murderous Bobby Thompson on the other —  is, through postmodernism and self-awareness, an exploration of the past, of icons that seem to be weighed down by versions of themselves. With Targets being released in 1968, a year before Easy Rider and the explosion of New Hollywood, it turns its gaze in on itself, just as Orlok does. He situates himself among the stars of decades past, saying “Mr. Bogeyman, King of Blood, they used to call me. Marx Brothers made you laugh, Greta Garbo made you weep, Byron Orlok made you scream.” But by the time Orlok retires, monsters don’t make audiences scream anymore; they’re reduced to punchlines, bitter old men in suits like the villains in Scooby Doo, which first aired a year after the release of Targets.

One thing that Lugosi and Karloff have in common is exactly that; in their day, they made you scream. They embodied monsters and misfits in such a way that, in a sense, the men became the monsters, whether they wanted to or not. They became icons, representative of a certain type of horror, and a certain type of actor. Both men, in their ways, played those very particular actors, followed around by famous roles as if they’re ghosts. By playing characters that feel like versions of themselves, both Bela and Boris try to manipulate the iconography that surrounds them, in a postmodern exploration of what it means to be a star, and wonder if it’s possible to escape from their own shadows. Mark of a Vampire and Targets show two icons trying and failing to assert control over the monsters that they helped create, as if they themselves are versions of Victor Frankenstein, relinquishing their power over the things that they brought into the world.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.

1 reply »