Five Best Dracula Performances
Some incredibly talented actors have portrayed Bram Stoker’s famous vampire over the decades.
The Best Count Draculas on Film – Ranked!
The trailer for Renfield quickly started trending after it debuted on YouTube because it offered fans their first glimpse of Nicolas Cage’s bizarre portrayal of Count Dracula. If you have yet to see the trailer for yourself, you can view it in the player below, and it will definitely be the strangest thing you will see all day. Based on an original idea by Robert Kirkman (who you may know as the creator of The Walking Dead), Renfield will star Nicholas Hoult as the titular servant, with the Oscar-winning Cage appearing as Dracula. The film is being directed by Chris McKay, an acclaimed filmmaker whose previous directorial credits include The Lego Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War.
Seeing as Cage is an extremely talented and versatile actor who is known for bringing his unique brand of weirdness to every role he tackles, his performance as Dracula will unquestionably be one for the ages. With audiences no doubt being in for an incredibly memorable depiction of Dracula when Renfield opens in cinemas on April 14, this list examines some of the best previous Dracula performances viewers have been graced with over the years, so fans will have plenty of viewing material to keep themselves occupied before Renfield graces our screens. After all, there have been some truly phenomenal adaptations of Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel over the years, and they often contain some monumental performances from actors portraying the titular vampire.
Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922)
The first-ever screen adaptation of Dracula was Nosferatu, an atmospheric German silent film from director F. W. Murnau, which was released in 1922. Seeing as the producers were unable to secure the rights to Dracula (the novel and not yet entered the public domain), the lead vampire’s name was changed to Count Orlok, but Nosferatu still ended up being far more faithful to Stoker’s novel than most licensed Dracula adaptations. Orlok was played by Max Schreck throughout the picture, who delivered a truly bone-chilling performance as the silent Orlock, who became one of the most iconic villains in the history of cinema. Hidden under a ton of garish makeup, Schreck effortlessly managed to terrify audiences with a mixture of inhuman expressions, movements, and mannerisms. Despite looking frail enough to be knocked over by a gust of wind, Orlok has remained one of the most terrifying villains ever to have graced screens since he originally debuted over a century ago.
Due to its endless critical acclaim, Nosferatu amassed a significant legacy over the decades. An acclaimed remake from director Werner Herzog was released in 1979, and a comedic film about the production of Nosferatu called Shadow of the Vampire was released in 2000, with Willem Dafoe starring in an Oscar-nominated performance as Schreck, who was humorously revealed to be an actual vampire. Although Nosferatu is now hailed as a masterpiece, the reaction from Bram Stoker’s widow was less enthusiastic. She infamously sued the producers, with the judge ruling that all copies of the film be immediately destroyed. Thankfully, several prints survived, and audiences today can still experience the terror of Max Shreck’s performance as Count Orlock in this classic unlicensed Dracula adaptation.
Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)
Arguably the most famous adaptation of Stoker’s novel came in the form of the 1931 Dracula film from director Tod Browning, which starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role. With his exaggerated mannerisms, his devious facial expressions, and his familiar accent, Lugosi’s performance is now widely regarded as one of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema, and it is also usually the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Dracula. And while Lugosi’s take on the famous vampire has been parodied and lampooned into oblivion, it needs to be remembered that his performance was actually menacing enough to have viewers fainting in their seats when the film first debuted.
The actor portrayed the Count as a charming and beguiling upper-class gentleman who gradually reveals his sinister side as the film progresses, with Lugosi’s natural charisma and his background as a stage actor both working to his advantage, and he worked to represent Dracula’s two-faced personality. And despite the film’s more serious tone being somewhat undermined by the countless parodies over the years, the way in which Lugosi effortlessly exudes feelings of fear and dread from viewers throughout the more horrific scenes will definitely leave viewers unnerved. Lugosi’s style of acting really is something of a lost art because he clearly delivered a performance like no other when he played Dracula.
Christopher Lee in The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Hammer’s first Dracula film was The Horror of Dracula, which arrived in cinemas back in 1958. Lauded by critics, the acclaimed production from director Terence Fisher featured the first performance of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, a role he would reluctantly reprise in no fewer than seven sequels. While he only had sixteen lines of dialogue and only a few minutes of screen time throughout the entire picture, Lee effortlessly exerted charm and charisma throughout his performance in the Hammer classic, making this arguably one of the most memorable performances of his career. Even throughout the scenes where Dracula tries to be welcoming to Jonathan Harker, who has just arrived as a guest within his castle, Lee was still able to convey a sense of menace to viewers, as we clearly sensed through his portrayal that Dracula was a character who was not all that he appeared to be. And while it seems incredibly tame by today’s standards, The Horror of Dracula was heavily censored by the British Board of Film Classification upon its initial release, and it was even banned outright in Australia. Lee’s performance no doubt helped to terrify audiences back in 1958, and it certainly is not hard to understand why.
Lee was also notoriously blackmailed into appearing in the plethora of sequels, as the executives at Hammer told him that they had already sold the rights to the films to American distributors with his name attached and that he would therefore be putting the crew out of work if he refused to return. This explains why Lee had no dialogue in 1966’s Prince of Darkness, as the actor despised the lines in the original script and therefore only agreed to return if Dracula remained silent, which actually worked in his favour as he was able to showcase his versatile acting range by terrifying audiences with gestures and expressions rather than through dialogue. But regardless of the declining quality of the sequels, it still goes without saying that The Horror of Dracula is arguably one of the finer adaptations of Stoker’s original novel.
George Hamilton in Love at First Bite (1979)
Australian actor George Hamilton received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Love at First Bite, making him the first actor ever to be nominated for a major award for playing Dracula. The 1978 comedy film by director Stan Dragoti found a more friendly version of Dracula leaving his castle in Transylvania to find love in America, where he eventually fell for a model named Cindy Sondheim. While the film certainly had its fair share of silly moments, such as Dracula angrily telling the children of the night (otherwise known as wolves) to stop howling or hoards of angry communists evicting the vampire from his castle, it goes without saying that Hamilton delivered a mesmerizing and even somewhat heartbreaking performance as a misunderstood vampire who wants to be loved more than anything else. It may be a comedy film, but hearing Dracula professing his love to Cindy and offering her the reward of eternal life if she loves him in return will no doubt move you to tears.
Hamilton clearly played Dracula as a gentler and less sinister being, although the emotional weight of his performance still makes this arguably one of the most memorable incarnations of the character to date. Dracula may not kill anyone throughout Love at First Bite, but you will feel like a stake is being driven through your heart throughout some of the film’s more emotional sequences. So if you happen to be looking for a less horrific but still hugely emotional take on everyone’s favourite immortal vampire, Love at First Bite is probably just what you need.
Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Best known for directing the acclaimed Godfather trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola unleashed his interpretation of Dracula on the world in the form of the acclaimed 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite its title, the film was actually a rather loose adaptation of Stoker’s original novel, but it still went on to win three Oscars, so Coppola must have done something right. The incredibly talented Gary Oldman starred as Dracula in the film, with Winona Ryder appearing as Mina Harker, the object of his affection, and Anthony Hopkins as the knowledgeable vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing. Keanu Reeves also played Jonathan Harker, and the less said about the Bill and Ted star’s attempt at an English accent, the better.
Oldman played Dracula as more of a tragic hero than an outright villain, and once you looked past the ridiculous wigs he was forced to wear throughout the picture, you will no doubt be awed by the actor’s portrayal of a tortured soul who is clearly terrified by the prospect of spending the rest of eternity without finding true love. This was undoubtedly one of the most sympathetic depictions of Dracula to date, and while the character still commits his fair share of despicable acts throughout the film, you will still feel for him as his actions were committed out of love rather than for more selfish reasons. Seeing as Oldman is unquestionably one of the greatest actors of our generation, he effortlessly managed to portray the infamous vampire as a figure whom audiences will fear and pity at the same time, making us unsure if we want Dracula to succeed or to be stopped. So whether you loathe the character or emphasize with him throughout the course of viewing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oldman undeniably delivered a performance you will certainly not be forgetting in a hurry.
February 11, 2023 at 3:49 pm
Two honorable mentions: Francis Lederer in The Return of Dracula and Jack Palance in Dan Curtis’s TV movie (although you can see his fillings!)