Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 6, 2012
The other day my 4 year-old son slapped a square of blue felt onto the top of his head and angled one corner down in line with the bridge of his nose. “Dad, look… I’m a vampire!” He had, of course, just approximated with devastating simplicity the classic “widow’s peak” that is synonymous with vampires of a certain vintage, going all the way back to Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931). Hey, wait a minute… Bela Lugosi’s Dracula didn’t have a widow’s peak. So where did this style come from?
Let me just say at the outset that I think it’s great, in this age of sucky vampire entertainment like TWILIGHT (near unanimous applause) and TRUE BLOOD (horrified gasps, groans of appalled protest), that a 4 year old in 2012 knows what a proper vampire should look like. I haven’t exposed my kids to the Universal monster movies yet and they don’t really know who Bela Lugosi was. I’d have to guess that their perception of what the Undead should look like is a debt to SESAME STREET‘s Count von Count. The Count (articulated and voiced by puppeteer Jerry Nelson, doing a fun riff on Bela Lugosi’s notoriously dodgy English) made his debut in the 1972-1973 season of SESAME STREET but by then the widow’s peak was already established as the vampire’s standard styling procedure. We’d have to go all the way back to the beginning to figure out the provenance of this particular affection… and I think that’s time well spent because these things are important.
As you can see, Lugosi had no widow’s peak in DRACULA. His hairline extends straight across his brow, almost in a straight line, though you can perceive a slight peak in some photos (hardly a widow’s peak… more like a newlywed’s peak), which the artists who did the promotional materials for the film (both in its original run and re-releases) exaggerated slightly. When the role was passed on to Lon Chaney, Jr. in SON OF DRACULA (1943) and John Carradine in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), neither actor wore a widow’s peak; both interpreted the Undying Count as an older gentleman, more in line with Bram Stoker’s vision of the character. When Lugosi returned to the role of Dracula in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), he again had no widow’s peak; nor did he wear his hair styled into one in the non-Dracula outing RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944) over at Columbia. Even when the vampire limped away from his Gothic decline after World War II and into the brave new atomic age, he bore little resemblance to the cliche revenant in the celluloid collar and opera cloak. In THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), Francis Lederer wore his hair in bangs while Michael Pate’s nightwalking gunslinger Drake Robey in CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959) combed his hair straight back, revealing a horizontal hairline. In THE VAMPIRE (1957), the transformed John Beal looked more like W. H. Auden than Count Chocula.
While I was thinking this through, I got to wondering if the vampire’s trademark widow’s peak was just one of those things we assume is more bedrock than it really is, like the Pledge of Allegiance (not adopted by Congress until 1942 and the “under God” part is even newer!). Certainly, it was in place all through my childhood. Three-fifths of THE MUNSTERS had them (and Eddie wasn’t even a vampire!), as did Robert Quarry in COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) and Drac of the GROOVY GOOLIES (1972, voiced by Larry Storch), and Dracula in THE MONSTER SQUAD (1976, played by Henry Polick II) and Count Duckula and Big D in THE DRAK PACK.
When Vincent Price did a guest spot on F-TROOP as the only non-vampire from Transylvania, he still had a widow’s peak along with all the other standard vampire accoutrements…
… as did Bob Denver in a nightmare episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (which terrified me as a kid – terrified) and the thirsty main character of Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula and the poseable Dreadful Dracula figure from Mego. As I ran through all of these permutations of a classic vampire look whose provenance I couldn’t account for, I began to despair that I’d never figure out the course of the classic vampire widow’s peak… until I began to think outside the oblong box.
In WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), made a year after DRACULA, Bela Lugosi had a definite widow’s peak in the role of Murder Legendre. Dressed in funereal black, his skin possessing a ghastly pallor, commanding a veritable army of the walking dead, and rocking a mesmeric stare (and the ability to bend others to his will by doing nothing more involved than clasping his hands together), Legendre is as heinous a villain as ever horrordom had to offer… but he’s just not a vampire. In fact, he’s taken out of the zombie game by a conk on the head, after which he’s pitched over the side of his own castle (I’m guessing a rental) like the proverbial bag of yams. In the end, Legendre is just another of Lugosi’s patented whack jobs, up there with Dr. Mirakle from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) and Dr. Vollin from THE RAVEN (1935) — walking, talking nightmares all but entirely natural and leagues below the undying Count. Could it be, I wondered, that the vampire’s widow’s peak had come from a non-vampire role, that it was just sort of shuffled into the deck in those years when movies weren’t available on demand and people had to rely on their memories? Before I even had a chance to answer myself, a little voice in the back of my brain whispered…
… MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935). Yes, of course! Tod Browning’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE reunited the director with his DRACULA costar for some additional Gothic doings (based in part on Browning’s earlier LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT). In this MGM release, Lugosi, who appears as the dread Count Mora, scourge of Czechoslovakia, does have a widow’s peak in addition to an old school tux, cape, and thirsty helpmeet in Carroll Borland’s Luna (allegedly one of the inspirations for Morticia Addams). Yet while MARK OF THE VAMPIRE does have more than its share of creepy graveyards, tumbledown castles, flapping bats, superstitious locals, and victims sporting telltale fang marks (STOP READING HERE IF SPOILERS YE FEAR!) it is also not a real vampire movie. You see, Lugosi is playing an actor playing a vampire, all a plot on the part of the Prague police to unmask a mundane profit killer who has camped onto Old World myths and superstitions to mask his crimes.
Once I considered WHITE ZOMBIE and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, once I figured out that Bela Lugosi was the guy after all, I felt pretty dumb, having leapfrogged in my mind from Dracula movie to Dracula movie in search of the origin of the vampire’s widow’s peak (or as they say in Transylvania, the wampire’s vidow’s peak) without being more three-dimensional in my thinking. Still, it’s sort of funny that we have conflated Dracula with non-Dracula movies, grafting the widow’s peak of Murder Legendre or the ersatz Count Mora onto Bram Stoker’s Undying Count for our archetype. Maybe that doesn’t seem so crazy until you consider applying that same laissez faire attitude elsewhere, say inking “LOVE” and “HATE” across the knuckles of Robert Mitchum in THE SUNDOWNERS (1960) or remembering Mel Gibson in WHAT WOMEN WANT (2000) with his messed up MAN WITHOUT A FACE (1993) face or his THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) squeaky leg brace or his MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985) mullet. I’d complain about the imprecision inherent in our collective flawed love of the moving image and yet it’s clearing up just this very kind of misunderstanding that we geeks live for.
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