Tall, Dark and Gruesome is the title of one of Sir Christopher Lee’s autobiographies, and it couldn’t be more accurate. The English actor, best known for his role as Dracula for Hammer Films, passed away last week at 93. He was one of cinema’s greatest villains, but the army vet with the operatic voice did it all — including having a successful career as a symphonic heavy metal vocalist. Still, Lee will always be remembered as the Count in a cape with fangs — a role he grew to resent, but one his fans can’t get enough of. In honor of the decorated actor, we decided to rank cinema’s best Draculas. See if your favorite fanged fiend made the cut.
1. Christopher Lee
At the start of his long career, Christopher Lee was told he was too tall to be in cinema. But the English actor’s imposing height worked to his advantage in the role of the dark, handsome Count Dracula for Hammer Films. The first movie featuring Lee as the titular vampire, 1958’s Horror of Dracula, portrayed the vamp with a brooding sexuality. Lee would often cringe when the bloodsucker was brought up in interviews, feeling the studio emotionally blackmailed him to playing the part for far too many films. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about me in that role. It had never been played properly before that. With me it was all about the power of suggestion to make the unbelievable believable,” the actor said in an interview with the Telegraph.
2. Max Schreck
German actor Max Schreck was transformed into the bat-like Count Orlok for F. W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist horror classic Nosferatu. Although the character appears on the screen for less than 10 minutes, Schreck’s creature terrified audiences — thanks in part to Murnau’s shadowy cinematography. The portrayal still haunts moviegoers. From TCM:
Probably the most memorable and chilling aspect of Nosferatu is Schreck as the monster. An actor whose own name is German for “terror,” Schreck is certainly a nightmarish apparition with his bulbous head, pointed batlike ears and long, talonlike fingers and fangs. His ratlike facial features also associate him with the rodents who spread the plague across Europe. And Schreck’s eerie, stammering, zombielike walk has since become a feature of numerous screen monsters, from the stammering gait of Frankenstein to the deliberate, determined pace of the killer Michael in Halloween (1978). This inspired interpretation of Stoker’s monster suggests, in an almost subconscious way, the world of death and parasitism and decay created in Stoker’s novel. Schreck’s vampire was a thoroughly original creation, a monster far from the bloodsucking playboys of later Draculas.
3. Bela Lugosi
When Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi died in 1956, after a long battle with drug addiction, the Universal Pictures star was buried in his cape. Lugosi’s exotic accent and dark features made him a mysterious and seductive Dracula, despite some of his hammy performances. Lugosi was haunted by the character throughout his career, repeatedly typecast as a fiend — but fans embraced him as the Count until the end.
4. Klaus Kinski
Klaus Kinski spent four hours a day in his Nosferatu makeup for Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre. Roger Ebert wrote of Kinski’s eerie performance in his review that year:
Before long, we are regarding the count himself. He is played totally without ego by Klaus Kinski. The count has a monstrous ego, of course — it is Kinski who has none. There is never a moment when we sense this actor enjoying what a fine juicy cornpone role he has, with fangs and long sharp fingernails and a cape to swirl. No, Kinski has grown far too old inside to play Dracula like that: He makes his body and gaunt skull transparent, so the role can flicker through.
5. Udo Kier
Udo Kier is a force of nature in Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula. It’s an anarchic performance full of sex and blood, setting the count in 1920’s Europe. Kier’s vamp is decadent and deranged, and remains one of the best-dressed Dracs in film.
6. Gary Oldman
It’s said that Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder did not get along behind the scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula, but their chemistry in the film is undeniable. Oldman’s thickly accented vamp is a sinister gentleman, but his eyes reveal a softer side and the pain caused by the loss of his beloved. It’s a striking performance that has its cheesy moments, but remains one of the most emotionally involving.
7. Frank Langella
Trading Dracula’s image as a monster and casting the vampire as a tortured romantic type, John Badham’s 1979 film Dracula saw a ‘70s-coiffed Frank Langella in the role. Roger Ebert, again, understood Langella’s portrayal better than most, writing that the actor had “the grace of a cat” in the movie. Ebert writes:
This “Dracula” restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances, in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu” and Bela Lugosi’s 1931 version. It achieves that in two ways. First, through the Frank Langella performance. I didn’t see his Broadway “Dracula”, but the long stage run must have given him the opportunity to think more deeply about the strange character he was playing. Most of the previous Draculas we carry in our imaginations share two things: fangs and overacting. They come on so strong that potential victims shouldn’t let them within yards of their necks. Frank Langella gives us a character who “acts” as if he’s a count: He has royal manners, he is irresistibly attractive to women, he would have impeccable table manners if only, of course, it were not forbidden for him to eat.
8. Zhang Wei-Qiang
Zhang Wei-Qiang is one of the few non-white Draculas in cinema, cast by Guy Maddin in the 2002 film Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. The Chinese actor bridges the gap between new and old Dracula, bringing a mesmerizing elegance and sexuality to the character, made all the more hypnotic by Maddin’s engaging cinematography.
9. Duncan Regehr
They can’t all be serious. Duncan Regehr’s Count Dracula in the 1987 horror-comedy Monster Squad is over-the-top — evidenced in a number of scenes, like that time he called a five-year-old girl a “bitch.”
10. William Marshall
“You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula!” Yeah, William Marshall’s blaxploitation character isn’t exactly the real-deal Drac, but we can’t deny his appeal. This vamp has facial hair for days, reminiscent of the old-school horror makeup used on Universal’s monsters. More noteworthy is the influence of Marshall’s character. Blacula inspired a wave of black horror films, filling a void in the largely white genre market.