Universal’s Renfield presents a different spin on the Dracula legend, told from the perspective of the infamous vampire’s hapless familiar R.M Renfield. Nicholas Hoult plays the character better known for his deranged eating of flies in adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel while he leaves the limelight, but not much of it, to his boss. Opposite Hoult, Nicolas Cage inhabits the cape and sharp suits as a flamboyant count, joining an illustrious line of actors who’ve taken on one of the most popular characters in cinema.
Like the Prince of Darkness surveying his potential prey, movie lovers can pick and choose from many flavors of Dracula, drawing on a century of adaptations. Despite several productions choosing titles that suggest they’re the real deal, no adaptation has been utterly faithful to the novel. That means, among a diverse selection, viewers can choose from TV and film productions that are gothic, period, comedy, or modern.
One common link is Dracula, and here’s our pick of the greatest actors to portray the count on screens, small and large.
Bela Lugosi — Dracula (1931)
Nine decades on, Lugosi remains the definitively suave count. The 1931 Universal classic Dracula kickstarted Universal Classic Monsters series in style. The shot of him in his Transylvanian finery, a thin beam of light picking out his eyes, is one of horror’s most famous images. Bram Stoker, a theater manager, had been quick to realize the stage potential of his novel, giving Dracula a fast cut to adaptation. Hungarian actor Lugosi had his first stab at the role in a 1927 Broadway production. He traveled with the play to the West Coast in 1928, where he stayed and duly won the lead role in the Hollywood adaptation.
Appearing with little make-up and using his natural thick accent, Lugosi was instantly associated with the role. Horror typecasting followed as Lugosi’s career was apparently hampered by the heavy accent that had thrilled audiences in 1931. He returned to the role for a second time in 1948’s Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein.
Max Schreck — Nosferatu (1922)
If you don’t think Count Orlok is Dracula, the Stoker estate did. Produced 25 years after the novel’s publication, Stoker’s widow wouldn’t sell German film producer Albin Grau the rights for his expressionist take, but he went ahead anyway. Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu liberally picked up plot points from the novel and used the name Dracula on early prints, which made the infringement case straightforward. The movie faced real horror when the presiding judge ordered all copies destroyed, but we can all thank one precious print that made it to the U.S. for giving Schrek’s most famous role a life after death.
The German actor’s performance remains a startlingly different Dracula, coming before the popular image of the count had formed. His legacy has been immense, from his slow, stuttering creep to his inhuman look. Shreck’s performance launched a new stream of influence from the heart of Europe.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers — Dracula (2013)
NBC’s take on the vampire only lasted one season as it recast the vampire as a young, dashing antihero. A reimagined Dracula is revived from death and arrives in London as American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, with a fine line in modern science and interest in inventions that wow Victorian society. Its 10 episodes uncovered a clandestine fight between Dracula and the chivalric Order of the Dragon, giving Rhys Meyers considerable time to leave his stamp on the count.
His Vlad Tepes is the original vampire who’s content to play a long game in his quest for vengeance. He’s polite, charming, intelligent, and charismatic but also a ruthless and depraved killer. Rhys Meyers instilled a sense of loyalty to his menacing presence, and a memorable Dracula, albeit on the antiheroic side of the spectrum.
Christopher Lee — Dracula (1958) and sequels
Christopher Lee spent most of his tenure as a malevolent count less than pleased with the material, which makes his incredible tenure all the more impressive. Hammer horror reacted against its Universal horror forbear in many ways, as shown by Lee’s Dracula. His is a feral, swooping, and snarling creature with blood-red eyes — an atavistic force of terror.
Lee made more of his dashing presence in the first Dracula, but the animalistic count was reinforced when he didn’t speak in the belated sequel Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966). Lee maintained that the reason for his taciturn villain was that the dialogue was “so bad I refused to deliver it. All the way up to the 70s funk of contemporary movies Dracula 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Lee remained reliable and remains the most killed version in cinema history.
In between, he found time to appear in a non-Hammer international co-production Count Dracula, which gained mixed reviews but at least allowed him to carry the large white mustache of Stoker’s count.
Christian Camargo — Penny Dreadful (2016)
We waited a long time for Penny Dreadful’s big bad to appear, only to find there were two. One was Camargo as an exquisitely cast Dracula. He was Lucifer’s half-brother, a fallen angel, and the first vampire, locked in a fight with his brother for possession of Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives.
When Ives first encounters him in London, he’s in the guise of a friendly, quietly charismatic zoologist called Alexander Sweet. Carmargo was helped by John Logan’s brilliantly plotted gothic horror, which had menacingly built Dracula’s immense power and his brother’s threat for two seasons. But Camargo’s dark lord is a seductive, powerful, and terrifying incarnation and one of the greatest misdirects in Dracula’s lengthy career.
Louis Jourdan — Count Dracula (1977)
Jordan smoldered with quiet intensity in the BBC’s 1970s take that leisurely wove one of the most faithful adaptations of the book over two and a half hours.
Jourdan played Dracula as a figurative fallen angel, sowing the seeds of a more antiheroic figure who, as the actor put it, ‘takes blood and gives blood.’ It’s a plush production from one of the BBC’s great period eras, oozing luxury and sensuality, although the effects have aged faster than other classic versions. Jordan had the benefit of playing opposite one of the great screen Van Helsings in Frank Finlay, letting the Dracula actors’ quiet and intelligent count wallow bask in his brand of evil.
Peter Stormare — The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)
An animated Dracula? If he can transform into animal form and live forever, there’s no reason that Dracula can’t terrify as a cartoon. A feature-length spin-off from The Batman series, it sees Count Dracula descending on Gotham to enslave the city’s residents as a race of vampires with the help of Joker and Penguin. There’s also room for Bruce Wayne’s reporter girlfriend, Vicki Vale, to provide the chance to resurrect the vampire’s long-lost love.
Stormare has an excellent pedigree as a major-league villain, and as the count, he gets to wrap his voice around legendary lines like, “Try as you may, you cannot out-bat me.”
Gary Oldman — Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous adaptation famously proclaimed itself as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it still takes liberties with the source material. It was the movie that elevated the count back to prestigious cinema. However, its lead actor wasn’t too enthused about playing the vampire, even as a lustful elderly count, snarling werewolf, and trendy lovelorn Victorian.
It was Oldman’s first big American movie, and he freely admits working with Coppola and saying the line “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you” was the main appeal. Fair enough, but perhaps another example of a modest ‘Dractor.’ Oldman cut through popular perceptions of a melodramatic count. He’s mesmerizing and memorable, even when contending with Keanu Reeves’ notorious accent.
Jack Palance — Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)
Palance’s parents were Ukrainian immigrants, and his European pedigree brought some of the finest cheekbones in the business to the role. This was the first version to draw the link between Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. It also introduced the concept of reincarnated love, thanks to legendary screenwriter Richard Matheson.
Palance had worked with director Dan Curtis on the 1968 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and equipped with fangs, he’s an animalistic and prowling predator. His isn’t a performance for everyone, but it’s a tour-de-force no one would have expected from an actor better known for his western and tough guy roles. Legend has it that Palance turned down several subsequent offers to play the Count — this performance speaks for itself.
If he looks familiar, it may be from Marvel Comics Tomb of Dracula, where the vampire’s appearance was based on Palance even before he was cast.
Claes Bang — Dracula (2020)
Another BBC Dracula, and again cut loose from Stoker’s vision. Instead, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took thematic inspiration from the novel and the count’s 100 years on film to tell an epic story over a limited series of three feature-length episodes. Frightening, surprising, and twisty, as you’d expect from the Sherlock co-creators, Bang holds it all together.
The Danish actor swaggers through the role, injecting comedy, charm, and confidence, even when events don’t go his way. When, inevitably, Dracula must show his dark side, he unleashes absolute terror.