My own personal introduction to the extraordinary presence of Bela Lugosi was an epic one.
When I was just about 5 years old, I vividly remember being allowed to stay up a bit later than usual one night to watch some kind of "monster special" on TV, which I’ve since learned was called Monsters I Have Known And Loved. Excited as I was to see the show, I actually don't recall a great deal about it, other than it showed lots of monster movie clips, most of which have dimmed into a soft blur in my fading memory.
However, the one film clip I do very clearly remember was an eerie shot of Bela Lugosi in full vampire attire, gesturing weirdly at a cowering man who began to suddenly change into a werewolf.
I was awed at the scene and also confused. I asked my older brother what was happening and he told me that “Dracula had magic powers because he drinks human blood and can change guys into wolf-men the same way he can turn himself into a bat, and then make them his slaves.”
At the time that made a kind of creepy sense, and I never forgot that single, chilling scene.
Through the pulpy pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, I discovered the title, and a description of the film--Return of the Vampire!
So now I finally knew what to look for in the TV movie listings! I remember being a little disappointed (and a trifle baffled) that a movie studio had gone through all the trouble to cast Bela Lugosi as a vampire who wasn’t Count Dracula at all. Still, it was Bela, and vampires, and werewolves and I couldn't wait to see it.
It would turn out to be a very long wait.
For some unknown reason the movie never showed up in the Fright Night and Creature Features monster movie packages shown on our local stations. After reading a very fine description of Return of the Vampire in Don Glut's excellent The Dracula Book, I was even hungrier for the film than ever. Still, it never played on TV.
Even as I reached my adult years I never stopped looking in the newspaper for that film. Although I managed to search out and see nearly every other Bela Lugosi movie, I was beginning to believe that Return of the Vampire must've been a "lost" film. Then, one rainy afternoon, I stumbled upon a VHS copy in 1989. At last!
I wasn’t disappointed as the movie actually did live up to its promise of chills and thrills. Return of the Vampire is a first-rate horror film, oozing with atmosphere, especially in the early graveyard scenes, and features—so I believe—Lugosi’s most malevolent performance as a vampire. His glowering, powerful, and sadistic Armand Tesla gives me the savage impression that he could tear Count Dracula in half.
All this and a werewolf, too! This fright film is pure gothic magic to me, with Lugosi delivering a skillful underplayed performance that is nothing short of mesmerizing. Of course, obviously, my own nostalgia also adds considerably to the creepy charm of Return of the Vampire.
No wonder this remains my favorite Bela Lugosi starring vehicle.
It’s been a long road since those days, searching out a lost Lugosi treasure, and my admiration for the actor has continued to grow. Bela was, I always realized, a powerful influence toward my early decision to become a professional writer while still in my teens. My frequent choice of subject matter is also, no doubt, partially inspired by the ghost of Bela Lugosi.
Today, I’m honored to be contributing an original story for BELA LUGOSI’s TALES FROM THE GRAVE, a new horror anthology comic book series, the brainchild of acclaimed artist, and fellow Lugosi admirer, Kerry Gammill.
Finally, after all these years, Bela Lugosi and I get to work together. How amazing. How utterly magical.
A dream come true.
Thank you, Mr. Lugosi. Thank you so much, for everything.
And, Happy Birthday.