With the arrival of the 1950s, Bela Lugosi’s career and health continued to decline. With his addiction to pain killers due to chronic back and leg pain, not to mention his approaching 70 years of age, Lugosi’s twilight years were not as bright as they should have been. For the past month, I’ve taken a chronological look at some of his best and not-so-best films. Now, I want to wrap things up with some quick thoughts on his final films.
Mother Riley Meets a Vampire (1951)
The first of his films in this decade was made in London while he was on a failed tour of Dracula for the stage because he needed money to get home. It is actually a comedy in which Lugosi played Von Housen, a mad scientist with plans to conquer the world with uranium-powered robots. It was a flop and wouldn’t be released in the United States until 1963. That said, Lugosi proved his could do comedy and the film is well worth tracking down for you to judge for yourself. Granted, the Mother Riley segments are an acquired taste but the movie is not that bad, all things considered. It’s available on DVD.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
Lugosi did far worse with his next movie. This is due in large part to the presence of the Martin and Lewis rip offs. I reviewed this film in November 2014 as part of my Countdown to Turkey Day. And that’s more than enough on this mess of a film. YouTube this one and be done with it.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
This was the first of Lugosi’s collaborations with director Ed Wood. Bela serves as the narrator in the role of a scientist talking about the main character of Glen being a transvestite. Ed Wood was there to help Lugosi, who was destitute financially and suffering from drug addiction. But he clearly took advantage of Lugosi’s position to help market this celluloid disaster. However, Wood employed Lugosi when nobody else would, so he must be well recognized for that. It’s available on DVD…if you dare!
Bride of the Monster (1955)
I personally think this is the best of Ed Wood’s most well-known flicks and Lugosi turns in a fairly decent performance despite all of the usual Ed Wood limitations. He portrays Dr. Eric Vornoff, a mad scientist conducting experiments on strangers with hopes to turn them into super-beings through the use of atomic power. Of course, world domination is the ultimate goal. With a stolen mechanical octopus (courtesy of John Wayne’s Wake of the Red Witch), a confusing script, flimsy sets and poor acting, you’d think the film would be a disaster. However, it would turn out to be Ed Wood’s most successful picture. Samuel Z. Arkoff handled the distribution of the film, which ultimately funded American International Pictures. So we owe the movie that much. Lugosi turns in a fine performance, all things considered. It would be his last starring and speaking role on screen. Once production wrapped, Lugosi entered a drug rehabilitation facility. It is rumored that at least part of his expenses were paid by Ed Wood and Frank Sinatra. This “classic” is available on DVD.
The Black Sleep (1956)
This is actually a fun movie with a great cast. Basil Rathbone stars as Sir Joel Cadmund and is in search of the secret to restore his coma-stricken wife. Lon Chaney Jr. is the mad Mongo (far removed from his dashing leading man days) and we also get to see John Carradine and Tor Johnson. As for Lugosi, he sadly is relegated to a small and silent part as servant Casimir. Upon his release from drug rehab, Lugosi proclaimed he would be starring in a new Ed Wood film, The Ghoul Goes West. That never happened but Lugosi did secure his role in this film. He begged for some speaking lines and supposedly some were filmed but cut from the final film. After a brief theatrical release, it was added to the Shock Theater package. It would eventually be re-released in in 1962 as Dr. Cadman’s Secret. Despite Lugosi’s small part, it is well worth checking out on DVD.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
How sad is it that Lugosi’s career ends with this disaster? Ed Wood filmed several scenes with Lugosi before and after his stint in drug rehabilitation. It’s still unclear whether or not this footage was originally intended for announced-but-never-released films Ghoul on the Moon and The Vampire’s Tomb. However, we do know that it ended up in this film, originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space. Add some Criswell, Vampira, Tor Johnson, a crazy script and a ridiculously low budget and beyond cheap special effects, and you get the results seen here. Not the worst movie ever made but for this to be Lugosi’s cinematic swan song seems almost a tragedy (chiropractor Tom Mason doubled for Lugosi in scenes shot after his death, adding insult to injury). Prepare yourself for a laugh by watching the Blu-ray.
Sadly, Lugosi never had a grand finale like Boris Karloff did with Targets (1968). He simply faded away trying to do what he did best. Bela Lugosi would suffer a fatal heart attack in his Los Angeles home on Aug. 16, 1956, at the age of 73. Lugosi was even buried wearing one of his Dracula capes. He was immortalized in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood when Martin Landau played Lugosi. Despite Landau receiving the 1994 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, many people, including his son and Forest Ackerman, have stated that the portrayal is inaccurate.
- Check out the Joe Blevins Dead 2 Rights Ed Wood Wednesdays series for everything you need to know on the Ed Wood/Bela Lugosi films and so much more.
- There are a lot of Bela Lugosi biographies out there. I personally quite enjoyed The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig.
- Gregory William Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration is fantastic! It’s a bit pricy but well worth every penny.
- The Vampire Over Hollywood! podcast has a very irregular release schedule (might even be done at this point) but is well worth checking out for what was done so far.
My Personal Top Ten (and Least Favorite) Bela Lugosi Movies
And there you have it! The 4th Annual 31 Days of Halloween is over. While I had fun watching so many Bela Lugosi flicks, many for the first time in a decade or more, I’ll admit it was a lot tougher to do than with Boris Karloff last year. Lugosi had more than his fair share of bad flicks. That said, he also made some fantastic movies. Here are my current top ten favorite Bela Lugosi films. As with any list, they are subjective to my current mood.
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- Dracula (1931)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- White Zombie (1932)
- Return of the Vampire (1944)
- The Raven (1935)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
I’m open to suggestions for what next year’s 5th Annual 31 Days of Halloween should bring. I’ve been thinking of maybe Vincent Price or a combination of Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., or maybe just doing something entirely different and not doing 31 days of reviews. This year’s effort was definitely a task. Let me know what you think. For now, Monster Movie Kid needs a break! I do have some catch-up articles coming out soon covering some topics I was unable to in the last month. And, as always, thank you for your support!