Bloodlust

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

Except for hardcore porn, no movie genre is as disreputable as horror. It is inherently, and proudly, visceral--a severed finger in the champagne flute of cinema history. Even when a highbrow auteur like David Cronenberg or Stanley Kubrick comes along and tries to swathe the genre's bleeding, ripped-up heart with layers of self-conscious allegory and symbolism, the finished product still rises or falls on its capacity to spook you.

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.

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.

Once the monster comes to life and starts walking around and wondering who he is, where he's going, and why anybody would create a creature so miserable and lonely, the film goes oddly slack. Robert DeNiro is competent as the creature, but his makeup is more haunting than he is, and when he tries to speak, he often sounds disinterested or vaguely miffed. He's like Forrest Gump with stitches and a mean streak. He's interesting, but not awe-inspiring.

The same goes for the movie. Branagh's showoffy direction communicates how excited he is to be telling this story, but he hasn't put much thought into either the script (dull platitudes, fortune-cookie warnings) or the camerawork (so many unmotivated 360-degree pans that the movie starts to feel like a gothic merry-go-round). He's a lazy and blandly arrogant director who seems to think following actors around with a Steadicam is real filmmaking. Except for a few choice images (a heart ripped from a sleeping person's chest, the monster and Victor slip-sliding around on a floor covered with afterbirth) the picture contributes nothing fresh or startling to this oft-told tale.

And as you probably suspected, the title is misleading: this is actually Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, complete with stagey dialogue, out-of-nowhere plot inventions, and the same brand of we're-having-a-grand-old-time-here-on-the-set overacting that made Branagh's previous two pictures such a chore to sit through. His bag of tricks is woefully limited: when a scene is sad, the music is sad and the actors look mopey, and when it's happy, the music turns perky and the actors laugh and hug and prance around around like teens in a high-school production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Every Branagh movie since the marvelous Henry V, which he both starred in and directed, has felt vaguely disappointing to me--even Dead Again, a delirious piece of cinematic junk food I've probably watched at least nine times. I used to worry that creatively, Branagh was selling himself short--that he was trying to be Brian DePalma or Lawrence Kasdan when he had the talent and vision to be another Orson Welles. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein confirms that he's a limited filmmaker, and that the wit and intelligence of Henry V was probably a fluke. Critics called it accessible Shakespeare, but when you recall how he lavished closeups on himself and backed his big speeches with syrupy symphonic music, the emphasis was on "accessible." Branagh isn't an artist; he's an entertainer who occasionally wears the robes of art.

But in this movie, even the most entertaining scenes feel strangely forced and phony, as if the filmmaker thinks you're so thrilled to be in his company that anything he does will earn your admiration. It's a cocky film that has nothing to be cocky about. What a shame that Kenneth Branagh is too in love with being Kenneth Branagh, grinning suntanned interview subject, to care about artistry anymore. For all its shrill hyperexcitement, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein feels cold and remote. It's a familiar corpse of a story jolted with zillions of watts of filmmaking electricity that rarely springs to life.

Interview with the Vampire. Warner Bros. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt. Script by Anne Rice, from her novel. Directed by Neil Jordan. Opens November 11.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Columbia. Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro, Helena Bonham Carter. Script by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Now showing.

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