By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Interview with the Vampire, the long-awaited screen adaptation of Anne Rice's undead epic, would seem to have all the trappings of a genre classic. And to be fair, it does have its moments--especially when Tom Cruise is onscreen as the dreaded French ur-vampire Lestat, snacking on human morsels and tossing his corn-colored locks around like a pansexual muppet.
Lestat, like all vampires, is a bad boy frozen in time; because the role is emotionally static and one-note, it can't hold our attention unless it's played by an actor with deep reserves of mystery, elegance, and sexual power. Cruise has no such qualities. He's most effective playing ambitious and shallow young go-getters forced to grow up fast; when directors try to sell him as a smoldering beefcake cipher, the way Tony Scott did in Top Gun and Days of Thunder, Cruise comes off like a male model with a head cold and an attitude problem. (Which is why casting Antonio Banderas as a rival vampire was probably a mistake: one look at this Spanish demigod, with his dark eyes and lithe frame and overpoweringly sensual screen presence, and you mourn the film that might have been.)
But Cruise cannily avoids his limitations. He's not Anne Rice's Lestat, but in the early sequences set in 1830s New Orleans--where Lestat converts, through an elaborate neck bite-wrist transfusion ritual, a squeamish younger vampire named Louis (Brad Pitt), then mentors him in the fine art of bloodsucking--he's a hammy hoot. Stalking imperiously through bedrooms and cobblestone storefronts and across moonlit waterfront docks and snickering smugly at his own evil deeds, Cruise is so narcissistic and crude and bitchy that he seems to be daring us to like him. He's miscast, but he makes the part his own.
Like the book, the film is told in flashback through Louis' eyes as he relates his centuries-long odyssey to an enraptured young reporter (Christian Slater). The novel reads like a cartoonish, long-form reworking of an Edgar Allan Poe story, in which uncanny events seem credible because the person telling them is so breathlessly persuasive. Rice writes the same way--with kinetic, sometimes hysterical energy, pouring on the sex and violence and passion. Words like "suddenly" and "inexplicable" and "indescribable" pop up with alarming frequency; you can almost see her sitting in a moonlit upstairs room of her
New Orleans home, pounding away on her keyboard and chuckling to herself.
If only the movie had Rice's vigor. Shifting from location to location (New Orleans, Paris, San Francisco) and century to century, basking in ornate sets and costumes and furnishings, disorienting the viewer with tricky dissolves and eerie shock cuts, Interview with the Vampire is so thoroughly envisioned that even the dull stretches hold your eye. A few compositions rank with the filmmaker's eeriest: a closeup of a spilled tray of crawfish overturned during a life-and-death struggle; a vampire collapsing on a Persian rug, throat slit, velvety blood welling out around him like a slowly-expanding nuclear sunburst; two terrified vampires trapped in a well as morning comes, clutching each other as the rising sun vaporizes them.
And yet, unlike Rice's books, the film wants to have things two ways--to be both thrilling and subdued, profane and respectable. Its oceans of gore suggest the gritty, sexy, over-the-top Hammer horror flicks of the 1950s and 60s, yet overall, the film's tone is moody and reflective. It's not quite clever and impassioned enough to be low art, and it's not entertaining enough to be great trash.
And Brad Pitt, bless his heart, is a large part of the problem. When directors play up his cocky, hunkish, folksy side--the way Robert Redford did in A River Runs Through It, and Ridley Scott in Thelma and Louise--he's a joy to watch. But there's nothing about him that suggests inner torment or even self-awareness, which makes him a boring Louis. As written, the character is a roguish wastrel who finds a purpose when he becomes undead, but can't really get the hang of it. Because he has a conscience and some kind of moral code, the fact that he's trapped forever in an evil existence makes him miserable. Lestat keeps egging him on, imploring him to loosen up and quit being such a stick in the mud, insulting Louis' manhood and lack of guts. They're like a couple of undead frat boys stuck at a neverending blood kegger.
Rice's script, which was substantially rewritten during production, downplays the homoeroticism of Louis and Lestat's relationship--reportedly because Cruise, who has fought rumors of homosexuality for years, demanded it. Yet the nature of the material prevents such camouflage. If the book is really "about" anything besides pure entertainment, it's the emotional consequences of living a life free of social (and physical) rules. Rice's vampires are bohemian demons who go wherever they want, kill whoever they want, have sex with whoever they want; they can do anything they please with their bodies because they're already dead.
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