Interview with the Vampire and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein try to invigorate the horror genre

If Cruise is as irrationally worried about the novel's sexual elements as the Hollywood trade press claimed, it might have been because he didn't really understand them. Rice's vampires aren't straight, gay, or bisexual. They defy labels. They're omnisexual consumers of life. Everything makes them horny, from naked flesh to the stench of fear to the way a rat yelps when you bite its furry head off. Rice's book is a tale of a dysfunctional, unrequited love that transcends the limits of time, space, and morality; it's about a young, weak man who falls for an older, stronger man, loses every last bit of his innocence, then can't break free of the relationship no matter how hard he tries.

It's easy to see the studio thought Jordan was the right director for this job. He's a fluid, intuitive, emotional filmmaker who loves offbeat actors and stories, and all of his previous films deal, to some extent, with forbidden desire--with the trouble that ensues when a passionate but clueless outsider (like Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game) enters a taboo world and becomes obsessed with an alluring, slightly scary "other."

But Jordan doesn't go all the way with this idea; he merely flirts with it. Interview with the Vampire is his least personal movie. He doesn't blow your mind and break your heart the way he did with Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and The Miracle. You can sense his angst and uncertainty: he's an intimate filmmaker wading through $60 million worth of Hollywood glitz to make something that matters to him. He's caught between two forces stronger than himself--Rice, the queen of an international fan cult, who wanted something twisted and brave and strange, and Cruise, a box-office kingpin whose previous attempts to stretch himself (The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July) have commented on his All-American image without truly subverting it.

As a result, the Louis-Lestat relationship never quite comes to life. The homoeroticism of their relationship lurks between the lines of a script that often appears to be deliberately dodging it. The two vampires act less like epic lovers than mismatched roomies. It's as if Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell moved to New Orleans and began killing people. (Jordan does capture one of Rice's funniest conceits, however--portraying Louis and Lestat as the two most inept buddies in vampire literature. Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, their boyish impulsiveness often gets them into accidental trouble; it seems like everywhere they go, they kill somebody they meant to convert or convert somebody they meant to kill and have to burn a building to cover their tracks. Pitt and Cruise tear into each other like an old-time comedy duo who've been working together forever--Martin and Lewis with fangs.)

The film only taps into Rice's brand of dreamy psychosexual delirium when it deals with Louis and Lestat's decision to convert a preadolescent girl named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), then raise her like a daughter. Here, for once, Jordan seems to know exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, and he doesn't hold back. Thanks to the director's sympathetic touch and Dunst's nuanced, disturbing performance (possibly as good as Anna Paquin's in The Piano), Claudia is the only character with whom we feel a powerful emotional connection.

In an astonishing sequence that follows Louis, Lestat, and Claudia on the prowl in a red light district, the girl peers at a naked whore washing herself in a window, and asks if she will ever have an adult body and adult desires. The answer, of course, is no, and the grief-stricken look on Claudia's sweet face might be the film's most indelibly frightening image. Here, in one closeup, is everything that's missing from Interview with the Vampire--a keen sense of the difference between fantasizing about immortality and actually experiencing it. If the rest of the film had been as emotionally direct, the result could have been a masterpiece of cinematic horror--the first vampire tragedy.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has a much better sense of what it is and what it wants to do. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean wunderkind who's also a shameless aspirant to old-style Hollywood glamour, the film has inventive sets and costumes and moves well. But it doesn't have a brain in its reanimated head. It's MTV Cliff Notes to Shelley's gothic classic, and it's dumb, crass, and loud. Between Branagh's endless shouting and leaping and grimacing as an actor and his breathlessly whirling camerawork as director--not to mention Patrick Doyle's pounding, apocalyptic score, which almost never shuts up--the movie is certainly obnoxious enough to wake the dead. It's trash through and through--sometimes enjoyable trash. What it isn't is memorable.

Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein, a gifted young med student haunted by the death in childbirth of his sainted mother. Determined to find a way to overcome mortality, he uses the notebooks of a deranged biology professor (John Cleese, very effective in an uncharacteristically restrained performance) to build his own humanoid from gory bits and pieces. Any movie with the word Frankenstein in the title had better have one hell of a barn-burning laboratory scene, and this one doesn't disappoint: with its swirling steam, sizzling power pylons, clanking chains, whirring gears, and a coffin-shaped metal birth tank stocked with amniotic fluid and electric eels, the place looks like Studio 54 redecorated by Jules Verne. The lab sequences are pure Ken Russell excess: when Frankenstein is in the laboratory, he's so happy that he becomes sexually excited, stripping off his shirt and dry-humping the machinery.

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