Dracula always comes back. Even when he meets the business end of a stake in his movies, he doesn’t stay down for long. The pop culture landscape is constantly shifting, but one constant is Dracula — whether he’s imagined as a blood-sucking fiend, a hopeless romantic, or both.
In fact, there are two noteworthy new versions of the character on the horizon. Netflix and the BBC are partnering on a new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel from Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. In addition, Tricia Helfer, who famously played Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, will take on the role in the fourth season of Van Helsing. Before these new actors join the ranks, we’re looking back at Dracula's past. Here of the 5 best and 5 worst Dracula performances since the master vampire first started haunting our screens.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best TV shows of all time, and the fact that it centered on a girl whose destiny is slaying vampires makes that fact all the more astonishing. Buffy encountered a lot of vampires over her time as the Slayer, so when Dracula came to Sunnydale, it was a big deal. Their encounter was appropriately hyped by the network and the episode "Buffy vs. Dracula" served as the show's fifth season opener.
Yet Rudolf Martin’s Dracula wasn’t exactly a super frightening vampire king. The show envisioned him as a foppish elite impressed with his own fame. While Buffy commented on many tropes, this Anne Rice-wannabe Dracula was a disappointment. There was no question that Buffy would get him in the end.
Over three seasons, Penny Dreadful featured all sorts of literary monsters. It was only a matter of time before Dracula showed up, and when he did, he proved he was worth the wait. On the show, Dracula initially presented himself as a zoologist named Dr. Alexander Sweet to court the main character Vanessa Ives. Of course, it was a manipulation. Yet even when Vanessa discovered who Dr. Sweet really was, it was hard to tell what his intentions truly were.
Christian Camargo’s Dracula was alluring and menacing in equal measure. To Vanessa, he presented himself as an upstanding aristocrat whose interest in shunned creatures made him intriguing. Yet when he wasn’t with Vanessa, he was devious, manipulative, and prone to violent outbursts. Camargo played the character as a fascinating puzzle that lived up to the image of vampires as both romantic and horrific.
Blade: Trinity was the worst entry in the Blade series for many reasons, but among them is its depiction of Dracula. Pitting Blade against Dracula was supposed to be the ultimate vampire showdown. However, this Dracula didn’t come across as much of a threat. Instead, he was a meathead who went by the name Drake and favored shirts with plunging necklines that let him show off his pecs.
Dominic Purcell, who played Dracula in the movie, has since become a regular on the CW’s DC series Legends of Tomorrow where he regularly sends up his beefcake appearance. His performance on that series is delightful. In Blade: Trinity, though, the writing locked Purcell into a version of Dracula that lacked any of the charming menace or scheming intelligence fans expect of the character.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous-looking film that sticks more closely than many adaptations to its source material. The movie was gory and romantic and melodramatic, sometimes all at the same time. Much of that was thanks to Gary Oldman’s livewire performance as the immortal Count.
Oldman could be horribly evil as his character embraced his vampire nature. Yet underneath that was a tragic figure who had seen too much over his long life to care about anyone — until he met the one person who could change that. While the movie had some undeniably silly moments, Oldman never let his Dracula get too hammy. Instead, he gave an emotionally nuanced performance that smoothed over some of the movie’s cheesier parts.
The 2004 film Van Helsing was meant to re-imagine the famous vampire hunter as a swashbuckling hero who stood against all the forces of darkness. Of course, his primary nemesis was still Dracula. This Dracula was obsessed with bringing a bunch of vampire babies into the world. The whole thing was weird and not especially interesting, and the poorly-executed CGI didn’t make things any better.
Meanwhile, Richard Roxburgh as Dracula made the whole thing even more of a head-scratcher. Roxburgh played Dracula with all the camp of someone who believed they’re acting in a satire. The problem was none of the other actors got the memo. So Roxburgh seemed like he was in an entirely different movie, sashaying around and doing everything but chew the scenery. The movie wanted us to believe he was scary, but his performance was way too over-the-top to intimidate anyone.
The 1979 version of Dracula is less well-known than some of the other entries on this list. Yet, it deserves its place in the pantheon of must-watch Dracula films. Not only are its visuals beautiful, it’s the first movie to fully embrace the sensuality of the iconic character.
Frank Langella‘s Count was romantic and compelling. He gracefully stalked his victims in a way that made it clear they would succumb to him willingly — and enjoy it. Viewers can’t help rooting for him, even though we really should know better. The movie is a little dated now, but for Langella’s performance — and the sumptuous visuals — it’s well worth a watch.
The Andy Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula from 1974 casts Dracula as a starved vampire desperate for sustenance. Unlike the romantic danger many of the best Dracula performances project, Udo Kier’s Dracula is repellent and depressing.
This Dracula must feed on the blood of virgins to survive and food’s been scarce. So, getting what he needs is his main focus. When he isn’t asking young women if they’re virgins, he’s whining anxiously about his situation. The movie is supposed to be quirky and artsy, but ultimately it’s just no fun.
In 1958, Hammer returned Dracula to relevance with Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee in the title role. Without Lee, the film may not have succeeded. The actor didn’t have many lines in the movie, so Lee relied on his physicality to make the character work. In the process, he made the Count utterly his own, exuding animal magnetism and genteel poise with every glance and movement. It also helped that, at well over six feet tall, Lee was an imposing presence who towered over everyone.
Horror of Dracula not only vaulted Lee to stardom, it spawned eight sequels, cementing his characterization of the vampire as clever, calculating, and captivating in the minds of the movie-going public. Lee utterly commanded the screen. When his Dracula appears it's impossible to take your eyes off him.
Dracula 2000 is a Dracula movie that could only have been made during the era of The Matrix. Overly serious and full of pretty young things, the movie also put a unique spin on the traditional Dracula story (spoiler alert!): this Dracula was originally Judas Escariot and he’s still got one heck of an ax to grind.
While that explained why religious icons and silver could hurt him, it didn’t explain why he was so irresistible to women. Gerard Butler portrayed the character as a broody cardboard cutout without an ounce of charisma or danger. Today, the movie and Butler’s performance come across as laughable.
The original is still the best. Bela Lugosi was the very first actor to portray Dracula in the movies in 1931 (we're not counting 1922's Count Orlok from Nosferatu here). All these years later, his performance is still the gold-standard, setting our expectations for what a stereotypical vampire looks, acts, and sounds like. Lugosi’s onscreen vampire was also the first to demonstrate the thin line between frightening and alluring, playing with the way this figure could evoke both feelings in viewers’ minds.
Although it’s considered a classic, the movie hasn’t aged well. Today many of its scenes come across as awkward and stagy. Yet without Lugosi, it’s hard to imagine the movie would work at all — much less lead to a string of popular Universal monster movies. And Lugosi did it all without CGI or special effects of any kind. For better or worse, the Hungarian-born actor will forever be associated with Dracula.