|Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 June 2000|
When INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE: THE VAMPIRE CHRONICLES was first released, it stunned many in the audience with its dark intensity. This movie plunges into a dark and twisted world that's unrelieved by anything.
Anne Rice followed her initial novel with several sequels, and developed a tremendous following. The novel sold to movies early, but took a long time to find its way to the screen. When Tom Cruise was first announced as the vampire Lestat, a character deeply loved by Rice's readers, there was outrage around the world, carried everywhere by the internet. Even Rice herself protested, but it turned out that Cruise isn't just excellent; it was his best performance until that time.
Until Rice's novel was published in 1976, vampires in fiction were the antagonists, not the protagonists. But Rice pulled her readers into a world of vampires; except for the character of the Interviewer (Christian Slater), everyone in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is a vampire. And vampires, being predators on human beings, reanimated corpses feeding on the living, are intrinsically evil; the character Louis (Brad Pitt) spends most of the story fighting this idea. If you don't know that there is no relief here from the darkness and death that lies at the core of the vampire mythology, the film could appall you.
It is, however, brilliantly made. Director Neil Jordan does not flinch from anything in the film -- a lot of blood is spilled, rats are devoured on screen -- and at the same time, he depicts the sinister beauty of the shadowy world of the vampires, with the help of magnificent production design by Dante Ferretti (THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, numerous films for Fellini and Pasolini). Because the story takes place almost entirely by night, Philippe Rousselot's cinematography is necessarily very low-key, but it's beautifully composed, elegant and a little corrupt, like the film itself. The score by Elliot Goldenthal is as rich, intense and dark as the film itself. Stan Winston's special effects are seamless and startling. The actors wear a lot of makeup-- but it's subtle and eerie.
In modern-day San Francisco, a young man whose name we never know has persuaded Louis to consent to an interview; he's surprised when Louis confesses that he is, indeed, a vampire (which makes us wonder why he was interviewing him in the first place). The movie returns to the hotel room from time to time as the interview progresses, and Louis's voice narrates most of the picture.
In 1791 Louisiana, in despair over the death of his wife and child, wealthy Louis has been trifling with death, which arrives in the form of Lestat, a handsome blonde vampire from France. He's been seeking a companion, and offers to make Louis a vampire, too. Attracted by both Lestat and the offer, Louis agrees, and bids goodbye to daylight. But Louis is aghast at what he has become, and refuses to regard human beings as prey, preferring to suck rats dry instead. When Louis impulsively fangs 10-year-old Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), partly to save her from the plague ravaging New Orleans, Lestat sardonically makes the child a vampire too.
For thirty years, they live together, until Claudia, now a woman but trapped forever in a child's body becomes furious, and enlists Louis' help in striking back at Lestat. Later, the two travel Europe together. In Paris, they meet Armand (Antonio Banderas) and Santiago (Stephen Rea), two of many vampire performers in Le Theatre des Vampires. Louis is both horrified and fascinated by the theater; the audience does not know they are watching "vampires pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires," as Louis murmurs to Claudia. It is in Paris that the story reaches its true climax, though not its end.
Jordan concentrates on details and on the characters; the story is merely the path the characters follow. The screenplay is credited to Anne Rice alone, although Jordan worked on it as well. She wants us to regard her vampires as something between angels and devils. She, and Jordan, want us to love these dark and tragic characters to a degree, and with Cruise's Satanic angel Lestat, and with Dunst's porcelain doll Claudia, this comes near to being possible.
But, unfortunately, it is not possible with Brad Pitt's Louis. He gives a letter-perfect reading of the role, but it is not a performance that draws us in. Louis spends most of the movie complaining about his fate, and we get tired of it. When Armand late in the film says that Louis is a "vampire with a human soul," we have to take him at his word, because we just cannot see it. Pitt is an able actor; he was miscast.
But despite Anne Rice's well-publicized misgivings, Tom Cruise was not. He brings his usual dynamism to a role like nothing he played before or since. Lestat is full of somber power, and loves to exert it. You cannot love Lestat without hating him; you cannot hate him without loving him, because Cruise and Jordan have shown us so much of what makes up Lestat. Lestat hates what was done to him, but unlike Louis, he accepts it as well, and has deliberately, consciously embraced the evil of what he is. Lestat is so overwhelming, so hypnotically loathsome, so beautiful and yet so evil, that Cruise absolutely dominates the first half of the movie. When it moves to Europe, leaving him behind in the United States, the movie loses a great deal of its energy and involvement. (One problem is that we never quite understand why the Theatre des Vampires turns so violently against Claudia and Louis.)
Dunst is amazingly good as the child vampire, one of Rice's most disturbing creations. Jordan does not shy away from the humor almost inevitable in her scenes; when Lestat makes Claudia a vampire, allowing her to drink his blood, like any child given a delightful treat, at once she says "I want more." Other scenes involving Claudia are comic as well, and some are horrifying.
Antonio Banderas is very powerful as Armand, king of the vampires of Paris, but it's not a large role. Christian Slater replaced River Phoenix in the role of the Interviewer; in a sense, that's a good casting choice -- but Slater's angular face seems somehow sleazy and repellent here. Jordan regular Stephen Rea appears almost unrecognizably as one of the more evil of the Parisian vampires.
The movie unquestionably has an enormous dark power; at the initial press screening, people were literally fainting in the aisles -- paramedics were called -- and the lobby became populated with those who simply could not take it any longer. But INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is not a thriller, however well made, though it is absolutely a horror movie. As with BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, it is a work of art, but it is even darker, more disturbing than that film. This power to shock does not come from the fact that the vampires win -- it derives instead mostly from the fact that there is no relief at all from the swirling, eternal world of violence, death and blood into which we're plunged for two hours.
The DVD is also a fine piece of work, and includes a very well-done documentary on the making of the movie -- a new documentary, not one of those publicity fluff pieces that turn up so wearily often on DVDs. Neil Jordan, Anne Rice, Kirsten Dunst, Stan Winston, CGI effects maestro Rob Legato, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea and even Tom Cruise are among those interviewed. Curiously, no one ever explains why the book took so long to reach the film, and there are no outtakes or deleted scenes, which would have been very interesting. And it's undercut by a silly "do you believe in vampires" section. Jordan's narration track is also exceptionally good; sometimes his comments are surprising, as when he mentions that because the characters are all immortal vampires, unlike in most horror movies, you really cannot fear for them. The commentary often doesn't relate closely to what we're seeing, but that's a small failing. Overall, this is one of the best DVDs of a less-than-recent film to come from Warner Bros.