Chris vs Bela: The Ultimate Dracula Showdown

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Who is your favourite Dracula? The Spooky Isles talks to horror film historian Alan Frank about the merits of two leading contenders for the King of the Vampires – Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi.

Dracula Showdown

The Spooky Isles is a British website, so when you ask your readers who is their favourite Dracula – the answer is kind of skewed.
A recent poll taken on our Facebook site revealed over 65% said Christopher Lee was their top Transylvanian bloodsucker. Poor old Bela Lugosi, the original vampire, was lucky to get 30% of folk saying he was fab. And don’t even ask about Gary Oldman or the countless other actors who donned the fangs and cape. They barely rated a mention.

Home town advantage put aside, why was Christopher Lee such a popular Count Dracula?

We asked Alan Frank, veteran film reviewer and prolific horror and science fiction book author, his opinion of the Lee/Lugosi divide.

Dracula (1958), without a doubt is the best,” Alan says matter of factly. “I had the luck to see the film when it happened (at the theatre back in 1958). It was quite extraordinary.  You might have seen the old Dracula, but this was full of atmosphere and it’s impeccably acted.  Terry (director Terence Fisher) learned one thing, which was to do it straight. For the time of the century, it’s brilliantly done. “
Alan believes Christopher Lee will long be the reigning champ.

“Chris Lee has got a very good voice. If you’re going to be bitten by Dracula, you want someone who (deepens his voice to sounds like Christopher Lee) “speaks like this”.

“Lugosi has the foreign accent that’s comic. I talked to people who saw Lugosi on stage here in the 1950s.  They say it was a comedy performance because he was sending himself up as Bela Lugosi (Alan impersonates Lugosi) – ‘I’m going to come and get yoooou!’  He’s on stage, by that time he must have been bored shitless. Lugosi needed the money.“

So maybe Lugosi was the reason for his own downfall – his original reluctance to take on other horror characters originally following the success of Dracula (1931) meant he was pigeonholed and forced to send up and destroy his own creation.

Hammer’s Dracula was different. The blood and bare flesh made Dracula sexy and Christopher Lee rode the wave of Hammer success.
Despite the decline in sequel quality into the 1970s, Christopher Lee is still seen as a bad-ass vampire, whereas Bela Lugosi, who defined the archetypal Count Dracula, is now seen as a comic buffoon.

I personally would argue that Christopher Lee, while charismatic and a brilliant actor, wasn’t really given a lot to do in Hammer’s Dracula or their endless sequels. Lee had a few lines in the first 20-odd minutes of Dracula (1958), then spent the next 15 years snarling and sneering like a feral cat.

Lugosi’s subsequent Dracula outings in films like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) notwithstanding, I believe Dracula (1931) still stands up as a fine horror film.

We tend to see Lugosi as a comic version of himself but just remember him standing on the steps of his castle and the uncomfortable silence as he greets Renfield: “I am Dracula”, he says. It is chilling and a great moment in horror history. There was nothing comic about that scene and we should all remember him for that.

Max Schreck in the title role of Nosferatu (1922)
Max Schreck in the title role of Nosferatu (1922)

With all the talk about Lee versus Lugosi, Alan Frank mentions another Dracula that should be given his credit – Max Shreck’s iconic rat-like vampire in FW Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu (1922).

The film was unauthorised and the filmmakers had to change names and plot to escape copyright infringement, hence why “Count Orloff” travels to Germany and not England. The film was the first time Dracula was filmed in any kind of way and Alan believes it is compulsory viewing for anyone who wants a spine-chilling experience.

Alan says:  “Nosferatu is something different. Nosferatu is genuinely eerie, genuinely creepy.  You never hear him. The thing about silent movies is, you’re doing all the work. They’re doing the montage, but they’re speaking in your head.  You read them in your own voice.  He’s not Dracula as you know him.  Even with Lugosi, he tends to find nubile young woman and nibble them. Nosferatu’s just plain creepy, and that’s what makes him interesting.”

I may be the lone voice in the wilderness in my support for Bela Lugosi but I am glad there is one horror icon who played Dracula both me and Alan can agree on. Says Alan: “Vincent Price was a good Dracula. People forget that. He played it once, in The Muppets!”

Who do you think was the best film Dracula – was it Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi or maybe someone else? Please comment below to let the world know which Count Dracula you support


  1. Christopher Lee is my favourite Dracula as well. I am a fan of Bela Lugosi too though. If you look at “Dracula” from 1931, Bela is far from a “comic buffoon”. Sure, subsequent films (Abbott and Costello) were under par, but the original? Bela was a magnificent actor whose heavy accent only added to his Dracula mystique. Bela is the original “heart throb” vampire. At the time, the ladies were pretty hot and heavy for him! No doubt, Lee’s Dracula lacked dialogue, but he didn’t really need it, did he? Like Lugosi before him, his look, his presence, his skill was enough to carry the entire film. That is the mark of good Dracula, just a look makes you shiver with anticipation, fear…..or delight.

  2. Christopher Lee has always been my favorite Dracula, not taking away from Bela because I really did enjoy his portrayals, Lee just added more to the atmosphere. I also liked Frank Langella when he donned the cape, and a very rare Dracula with Lorne Greene of Bonanaza fame when he played the role.

  3. Lugosi’s Dracula plays to the Victorian notion of the vampire as the mortal embodiment of satan – aristocratic, articulate, almost blase in his confidence of his power to seduce and corrupt. Add that to the fact that in 1931, talking pictures had only been around for 2-3 years, and a “talky” vampire, with a unique accent that brought attention to his voice and his words, would have been considered a plus. The Hammer Dracula films, on the other hand, present Dracula as a beast, a primal force of evil, seduction, and death, which modern audiences can no doubt relate to more.
    My favorite, however, is Max Schreck. “Nosferatu” is still one of the scariest movies ever made, in my book.

  4. I\’ll have to say Sir Christopher Lee (without whom I would have never even heard of the other Dracula actors to begin with!)
    He does not only play a very imposing Dracula, he also keeps htelling the History that surrounds Dracula in various documentaries.
    I understand why he gets annoyed of that role/name though, as firstly, he was never allowed to play it line for line off Stoker\’s book, and secondly, wherever he appears the media automatically write silly stuff like \”Dracula knighted\”, \”Dracula on the red carpet\” etc..makes me wonder if those small-minded journalists ever watched any other movies with him, and if they are aware of the fact that Mr. Lee played Germans probably more often than he played Dracula. (But you\’ll only notice that if you are going to watch all of his movies).
    And if any of those small-minded journalists happen to read this site: really, go watch the other 250+ movies in which he DIDN\’T play a vampire. He is so much more than just \”Dracula\”.

  5. Very, very difficult to pick between the two for the top spot, I agree with the comment below that Lugosi had an accent that added to the character, given its Stoker origins and I never found it comical. Bela Lugosi’s main flaw, and it’s a make up fault, is that they didn’t give him adequate fangs, if any at all. The make up team got Lee’s look spot on, couple that with colour and it was a quantum leap forward for the character on screen, so for me Christopher Lee is the better Dracula, and I hate to put it down to something as simple as make up and special effects, but there you have it.

  6. Christopher Lee is an over-rated actor in my opinion. The reason why he has very few lines in any of his films is that he hasn’t got the capability of delivering them at a professional standard

    • Actually, it was because he hated the dialogue and refused to speak unless the screen writers at Hammer improved it. They didn’t, so he played it mute. Watch some of Lee’s other movies and you’ll find that he is a legitimately good actor capable of delivering lines (see, The Wicker Man; he has some great lines in that one)

      That said, I agree he’s overrated as Dracula; Bela played the role in a very disarming, dare I say, even seductive way. He has such a charm about him that you can see why people would be disarmed by him, allowing him to infiltrate polite society. Even when claiming a victim, Lugosi’s Dracula never loses his composure. After all, he is an aristocratice first and foremost. The type of vampire that steps out of the shower to take a piss.

      Compare that to Lee’s portrayal. In the first scene he’s…kinda dull. Stiff, distant, monotone and seemingly bored. When in attack mode he does liven up, and is hilarious spectacle to behold! Bugging his eyes out and hissing like a feral Stepin Fetchit. Essentially the cinematic equivalent of sticking a flashlight under your face and yelling “Boogity-boo!”

      Lee later admitted that he deliberately started phoning in his performances as Dracula because he was tired of being cast in that role, but it’s apparent from watching Horror of Dracula that he was never interested in playing the Count in the first place which is why Peter Cushing and the stylish technicolor had to pick up the slack.

  7. Christoper Lee will always be the king of vampires. He has played many roles in his career and will always be remembered as Dracula but what a talented actor who could portray many characters on screen. I tip my hat to the master. Long live Sir Christopher.

  8. I was 8 years old when my brother and I saw “Horror of Dracula” and “Curse of Frankenstein” double feature. Lee was superb in both movies!
    They were quality pictures back in 1957 & 1958, unlike the crappy Dracula & Frankenstein movies of today.
    Wish they would do a remake and use the technology of special effects.

  9. “The blood and bare flesh made Dracula sexy and Christopher Lee rode the wave of Hammer success.”
    Don’t know if I agree with that. Bela Lugosi made Dracula a sex symbol long before Lee, and it’s pretty well known that Lee didn’t want to be known just as a villain or a monster anymore than Lugosi did. He refused to do Brides of Dracula, and only did Scars of Dracula under the condition that he would have more dialogue (and we all know how he later refused to talk about Dracula at all.) Also, despite his disappointment about being typecast, Lugosi doesn’t seem to have objected so much to horror as he did to Frankenstein. On paper, it didn’t look like a very appealing role – No dialogue, and a make-up job that left Boris Karloff with actual scars. He did plenty of horror movies after that, but Universal was more interested in promoting their new star, Karloff.

  10. Hi, just came across this article on the Lugosi v Lee Dracula thing ? I’m 55 & can honestly say Lugosi is the man…. Don’t get me wrong Lee’s version of the Count is tremendous, but so different from Lugosi’s refined gentleman. I was brought up on these films & loved them all & still do. I remember seeing Bela as the Count just over 40 years ago in the fantastic BBC “Dracula, Frankenstein & Friends” double bill on late Saturday evening, & I was completely mesmerised by Lugosi’s portrayal…. Lugosi was an early Method actor, before the term was ever used & I think people forget this….This man lived the part, was the part, he took the whole thing very seriously. I remember, the author, David Skal reciting an interview he did with David Manners, who played Jonathan in the Lugosi film, who basically said while they were waiting to go & do their part, Lugosi would be parading up & down, in front of a mirror, repeating over & over again “I am Dracula…..” Well Mr Manners & indeed Mr Skal this is what Method actors do ? Lugosi was living that part on & off camera in order to give such a fine performance & one that lives on & on FORVER ! Lee did the character differently bringing an animal magmatism to his rendition, another fantastic version of the Count, no denying that…..but Lee spent the rest of his years panning the film’s, never really wanting to talk about them in interviews. Hang on Chris, love it or hate it, this is the role that got you noticed, made you famous ! If you read biographies or autobiographies from actors around the same time as Lee moaning about the part, the likes of Caine, Stamp, Connery, Finney & Moore these guys were in bedsits begging for parts in plays, films & TV to get them noticed ! Undeniably Chris Lee had presence he had charisma but as a “REAL” actor he was a long way off ! Lugosi was the man, all the others are pale imitations, Bela knew how good he was & made us all believe “There are such things………” ?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here