Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bela Lugosi in the motion picture Dracula and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein created the archetypes for two of the most famous monsters in the horror film genre.

Summary of Event

No two performers have been more associated with a particular motion-picture genre than Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s chilling portrayal of the vampire in Dracula and Karloff’s sensational incarnation as the monster in Frankenstein left Hollywood with a legacy of definitive performances that established a standard for horror films to come. [kw]Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror (1931) [kw]Lugosi Become Kings of Horror, Karloff and (1931) [kw]Kings of Horror, Karloff and Lugosi Become (1931) [kw]Horror, Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of (1931) Motion pictures;horror genre Horror films Dracula (film) Frankenstein (film) Actors;Bela Lugosi[Lugosi] Actors;Boris Karloff[Karloff] [g]United States;1931: Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror[07720] [c]Motion pictures;1931: Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror[07720] [c]Entertainment;1931: Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror[07720] Karloff, Boris Lugosi, Bela Whale, James Browning, Tod

Dracula and Frankenstein, both released in 1931, were the first horror films produced by Universal Pictures. Universal Pictures The genre of the horror film, however, dates back to the beginnings of cinema and to the work of such directors as Georges Méliès and Thomas Alva Edison. Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;motion pictures Edison produced an extraordinary one-reel version of Frankenstein in 1910, the first attempt to transfer to film Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft 1818 novel Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. Universal’s horror hits of the 1930’s and 1940’s, however, remain the classics of the genre. The enduring popularity of horror films is to a great extent a result of the performances of Lugosi and Karloff in these early productions.

In 1930, Universal bought the film rights to a play by Hamilton Deane that was based on the 1897 Bram Stoker Stoker, Bram novel Dracula. In the play’s successful run on Broadway in 1927, Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi played the title role. Lugosi had fled his homeland in 1919 after a period of political unrest there and had made his way to New York, where he joined the Hungarian community and began working in Hungarian-language theater productions.

The director of the film version of Dracula, Tod Browning, had a talent for the macabre. His direction of Lon Chaney, Chaney, Lon a master of grotesque disguises, resulted in several notable melodramas in the 1920’s, including The Unholy Three (1925), The Big City (1928), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Originally, Universal had chosen the play as a vehicle for Chaney; when Chaney died of cancer in 1930, Browning considered several other actors for the lead. Lugosi, who had not yet mastered English, badly wanted the part and was finally hired—perhaps because he had successfully played the role on Broadway.

The tremendous impact the film had on audiences was in part due to Lugosi’s exotic and mysterious presence. His halting command of English, his long black cape, and his refined manners created a stir among women, some of whom actually fainted during showings of the film. In the credits, however, Lugosi was merely listed along with the other players.

In the film, Lugosi plays the part of Count Dracula, a five-hundred-year-old vampire whose thirst for human blood cannot be quenched. As the undying vampire constantly in search of new victims, he moves from his castle in Transylvania to the ruins of an abbey in England. While attending an opera one evening, he meets two young women from polite society. Using his cultivated charm and mysterious gaze, he begins stalking them, apparently with the aim of turning them into vampires also, but a famous vampire killer, Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) comes to the rescue. After some psychic struggle between the two, Van Helsing tracks Dracula to his coffin lair and drives a stake through his heart, thus breaking the spell.

Because Dracula was being filmed during the Depression, when Universal operated under rather severe budget restraints, every effort was made to save money. In one scene, Universal even used footage cannibalized from one of its other films. Most of the four hundred thousand dollars it cost to make Dracula went into the fantastic sets of Dracula’s castle; Lugosi was paid a mere thirty-five hundred dollars for his performance.

Universal was at first unsure of the impact Dracula would have on the public. Fearing that the film might be rejected as too horrible or disgusting, the studio had its publicity department advertise the film as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known.”

Dracula was released on Valentine’s Day, 1931, and was an instant success. The popularity of the film owed as much to Lugosi’s sinister charisma as to Tod Browning’s direction and the magnificent sets. The role of Count Dracula was Lugosi’s greatest success, and he became permanently typecast as a player of vampires, monsters, and fiends. His “Count Dracula” was copyrighted by Universal, and virtually all subsequent movie vampires were modeled after him in name or in style.

So successful was Dracula that Universal immediately set out to make another horror film. Choosing the right material was a challenge; however, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein was considered a likely follow-up to Dracula. Although an early treatment was prepared by writer-director Robert Florey, the studio finally gave the picture to director James Whale.

Whale, a theatrically trained director, selected Boris Karloff, an established character player in Hollywood films, to test for the part of the monster. Karloff saw the role as a dramatic challenge and had Jack P. Pierce, Pierce, Jack P. Universal’s greatest makeup artist, design the monster’s image for his audition. When Whale saw the result, he immediately gave the part of Karloff. Oddly enough, the part of the monster had originally been offered to Lugosi. Lugosi, who was not interested in a nonspeaking part and who did not like having to wear the heavy makeup, turned down the role.

As adapted for film, Frankenstein is the story of a slightly mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who attempts to create a living man by stitching together parts of cadavers. His final and most important step in the process is to find a suitable brain. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), a half-witted hunchback, mistakenly brings his master a criminal brain rather than a normal one. After being subjected to electrical current from bolts of lightning, the monster comes alive. Although Frankenstein is thrilled at the success of his work, the monster is so hideous that he is kept hidden from view in a dungeonlike cell. After being tortured by Fritz and finally escaping, the monster accidentally kills a child and is pursued by an angry mob of villagers. Dr. Frankenstein joins the mob in search of the monster. During the night, the monster grabs his creator and seeks refuge in an old windmill. The villagers finally surround the windmill and set fire to it, apparently killing the monster in the process.

Jack Pierce’s artistry transformed Karloff into a truly horrible creature, with hinged skull, electrodes protruding from his neck, and a stiff-legged, lurching walk. So fearful were studio managers that Karloff would terrify audiences that a prologue was added to warn the audiences that the film was capable of frightening and shocking them.

When Frankenstein premiered in Santa Barbara, California, on December 6, 1931, it created a huge sensation. Karloff, who was not even invited to the premiere, became an overnight horror superstar. In choosing Karloff to play the monster, Whale had made a brilliant choice. Karloff, who had served a lengthy apprenticeship both on the stage and in films, gave the monster a sympathetic quality. Although the character had no dialogue, Karloff was able to convey a wide range of emotions, from childlike innocence to terrified bewilderment. The poignant performance confirmed Karloff’s ability as a first-rate actor.


Not only are Frankenstein and Dracula the most famous of the Universal horror films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but they also influenced the development of the entire genre. One of the most significant results of the success of the films has been the enduring popularity of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Both men were highly regarded actors who had already established their careers well before becoming involved in horror films. Because of their definitive performances, however, Lugosi and Karloff became typecast in the horror genre. For better or worse, their names became forever linked in the minds of the public to films that evoke fear and terror.

Frankenstein was quickly followed by Murders in the Rue Morgue, Murders in the Rue Morgue (film) which was released in 1932. Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe (but drastically altered), the film starred Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle. This odd and disappointing melodrama is notable mainly for the presence of Lugosi as the mad scientist intent on proving his bizarre theory of evolution.

Two other Universal films of 1932, The Old Dark House and The Mummy, Mummy, The (film) starred Karloff. In the first film, Karloff’s performance was both brief and undistinguished. A much better film is The Mummy, which was directed by Karl Freund and starred Boris Karloff in the dual roles of Im-ho-tep, a mummy, and the resurrected Egyptian high priest Ardath Bey. Karloff plays Ardath Bey with an articulate charm and sense of style that resulted in one of his finest performances. The Mummy, noted for its excellent script, cast, and direction, is also famous for the incredible makeup by Jack Pierce. A unique and intelligent horror film, The Mummy spawned such lookalike films as The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and maintains a place alongside Universal’s two great horror films of 1931. Universal followed The Mummy with Secret of the Blue Room (1933) and The Invisible Man (1933). Invisible Man, The (film) The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale and starring Claude Rains, was adapted from H. G. Wells’s 1897 novel The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance. Because of the innovative special effects devised to convey the illusion of invisibility, The Invisible Man is considered a unique film in Hollywood history.

Lugosi and Karloff made their first joint appearance in a Universal film in The Black Cat (1934). Black Cat, The (film) Based loosely on a story by Poe, the film is a catalog of depravity, with various episodes of sadism, torture, mutilation, and murder acted out in a loosely woven tapestry of melodramatic sensationalism. In the film, archenemies Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) and Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) go at each other almost immediately upon reuniting in Poelzig’s mountaintop home. Werdegast accuses Poelzig of having killed his wife while Werdegast served time as a prisoner of war. In the years since their last meeting, Poelzig has been conducting monstrous experiments involving the preservation of the dead bodies of beautiful women. When Poelzig shows Werdegast the preserved body of his wife, Werdegast goes berserk, unleashing the forces of murder and mayhem that result in the death of both protagonists. Although The Black Cat was recut extensively prior to its release in order to placate studio chiefs who felt the film was too grisly, it remains a fascinating and bizarre horror film.

Lugosi and Karloff were to be paired again in the 1930’s in another Universal adaptation of a Poe tale, The Raven (1935). Karloff was to re-create his role as the monster in two Frankenstein sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), which also featured Lugosi. Among the other memorable films of those years are Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Wolf Man (1941), and The Mummy’s Tomb. The studio even successfully rereleased Frankenstein and Dracula on a double bill in 1938.

Although Lugosi was perhaps as talented an actor as Karloff, he did not select his roles carefully, and he went on to make a number of forgettable, even embarrassing, films. In later years, marital and health problems took their toll, and by the mid-1950’s he was broke and addicted to drugs. He died practically destitute in 1956. Karloff, although also typecast as a horror film star, had a busy and varied career in other areas of show business, including television and the stage. In 1941, he achieved critical success in the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Karloff’s gentle nature and quiet refinement were in stark contrast to the fiendishness of the ghouls he played in films.

By the end of the 1930’s, although fans still turned out to see the latest Universal tales of horror, many of the studio’s films were mere remakes that exploited earlier films. The result was that each new title seemed to parody the horror genre.

Although Dracula and Frankenstein are far from perfect films, horror fans continue to consider them minor masterpieces. The films may have lost much of their power to frighten, but the monsters created by Lugosi and Karloff remain definitive horror performances. Motion pictures;horror genre Horror films Dracula (film) Frankenstein (film) Actors;Bela Lugosi[Lugosi] Actors;Boris Karloff[Karloff]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bojarski, Richard. The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi. New York: Citadel Press, 1980. Comprehensive survey of all Lugosi’s film appearances, including his earliest films made in Hungary and Germany. Carol Borland, who played the female vampire Luna alongside Lugosi in Mark of the Vampire (1935), contributes a wonderful introduction. Brief biography precedes the catalog of films. Includes many rare photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunas, Michael, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver. Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990. A critical examination of every horror film produced by Universal in the 1930’s and 1940’s, presented chronologically. Features insightful commentary presented with a nice touch of humor. Includes photographs and informative appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lennig, Arthur. The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. Extensively researched biography seeks to expand the public’s view of Lugosi beyond his image as the Count. Draws on interviews, studio memos, and other primary documents. Includes numerous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindsay, Cynthia. Dear Boris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Intimate, readable biography of Karloff by a longtime friend. Carefully explores Karloff’s early years in England and his moves to Canada and then to the United States. Quotes Karloff extensively and features excerpts of letters to Karloff from such friends as Vincent Price and Ronald Reagan. Includes photographs, family tree, and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nollen, Scott A. Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991. Scholarly historical and critical analysis of Karloff’s body of work, well organized and well documented. Features an assessment of Karloff’s artistic contributions written by Ray Bradbury in 1969. Includes filmography, list of television and radio performances, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life. Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Press, 2005. Biography written with the cooperation of Karloff’s daughter includes coverage of all aspects of the actor’s life. Features appendixes listing all of Karloff’s many performances, including those in radio and television as well as those on stage and in film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Underwood, Peter. Karloff: The Life of Boris Karloff. New York: Drake, 1972. Biography effectively recalls Karloff’s struggle to become an actor, first on the stage and then in films. Offers a detailed, anecdotal account of the making of Frankenstein. Includes photographs, selected bibliography, discography, and filmography.

Premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Studio System Dominates Hollywood Filmmaking

Gangster Films Become Popular

Categories: History