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Holy Hell! Interview with the Vampire Turns 20

Holy Hell! Interview with the Vampire Turns 20

interview-with-the-vampire-1It is easy to blame novelist Anne Rice for having paved the road for weirdly moralistic, mopey vampires (and also inadvertently causing Fifty Shades of Grey) to exist in our culture. Her 1977 novel, Interview with the Vampire, is Patient Zero for the cultural sea change that has morphed vampires from figures of fear into objects of adoration. To be sure, Bela Lugosi had a certain Old World charm and Christopher Lee brought a sexualized energy to Hammer Films. But Rice’s vampires are noted for, more than anything else, their beauty and charisma; although there is much talk in her novels of “being damned,” the main result of damnation appears to be immortality, sexual fluidity and being able to front a popular rock band.

But whereas Twilight was already a cultural phenomenon before the films were released, Interview did not have the advantage of widespread internet culture in 1994. It probably also made a difference that Rice’s books were targeted to adults, while Stephenie Meyer wrote for a teen market, a demographic known for embracing the ridiculous to a fanatical degree. Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are self-serious books full of guilt complexes, historical fiction and theological ramblings. As a film, Interview is no less self-serious. In fact, it’s downright lugubrious from beginning to end, with essentially every character desperately filled with self-loathing. Vampires want to be human; humans want to be vampires; children want to be adults; Brad Pitt wants to be taken seriously. Perhaps only Rice’s most famous creation, Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise) seems satisfied with his existence, until the end of the film in which he of course is not.

To the credit of director Neil Jordan, Interview at least consistently looks convincing. Along with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Jordan builds a Romantic, shadowy past full of elaborate costumes and balls. In particular, their staging of a vampire play that secretly includes real vampires shows real panache and tension, even as it plays with melodrama. While the film doesn’t achieve quite the same level of historical immersion as say, 1984’s Amadeus, Jordan makes a good stab at it. Of course, it’s difficult to achieve a sense of immortal timelessness when your film prominently features Christian Slater, a man who essentially announces that it is 1994 any time he appears.

interview-with-the-vampire-2And the casting really is the fatal flaw of the film. At the time of its release, some controversy surrounded the casting of Cruise as the roguish, devil-may-care Lestat, spearheaded by Rice herself. While she may have turned a 180 on that, she was frankly right. In the first half of the film, in which Lestat offers Louis de Pointe du Lac (Pitt) the “Dark Gift,” Cruise is embarrassingly bad; he simply doesn’t have the chops to pull a murderous, vivacious 18th century French nobleman in either accent or verve. I have gone on record as defending Cruise as one of the more adventurous A-list stars of his generation, but that doesn’t mean that he is without failures.

Remarkably, though, Cruise does vastly improve in the second half of the film, when acting against a tiny Kirsten Dunst. Dunst, who deservedly was nominated for a Golden Globe, pulls off the kind of juvenile impetuousness and inhumanity that Cruise utterly fails at, but at least seems to bring out more depth in Lestat’s character. For his part, Pitt as the titular character is nearly a non-entity, spending the entire film reacting to events around himself than ever truly engaging. It doesn’t help that, much like Cruise, he is one of the more recognizably All-American actors of his generation, tasked with portraying an androgynous beauty for the ages. It is telling that the film repeatedly and overtly makes mention of Louis as a Creole, and yet there is not the slightest attempt to saddle Pitt with an accent, whether in the 20th century or the 18th. Someone on set knew their limitations.

Aside from Dunst, the only actor who really serves their role is Antonio Banderas as Armand. While Cruise and Pitt struggle to even pull off ponytails and tailcoats, Banderas brings gravitas to his character as a senior vampire and would-be mentor to Louis. It might be as simple as that Banderas’ Castilian accent actually imparts some of the Otherness to role that Cruise and Pitt cannot; it could be that he simply sinks his teeth into the doomed sensuality of Rice’s mythos more. The last section of the film, in which Dunst’s eternal child-vampire Claudia is killed by a pack of cackling Parisian vampires and Louis goes on a scythe rampage, is the only sequence that actually feels like the Gothic horror that it should have been the entire time. Say what you will about Twilight, but at least they had presence of mind to add a ridiculous baseball game between vampires to add some levity. Interview is nothing but dreariness from beginning to end, no matter how hard anyone tries.

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