Interview with the Vampire

994ITV_Tom_Cruise_035Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire survives its pre-release buzz — good and bad — and emerges as a first-rate work of goth splendor. Anne Rice’s novel (she also did the script) was a three-way cult item — a book that appealed to horror fans, women, and gay men (each group sees something different in the story) — and the movie should satisfy all three. Director Neil Jordan, who has a flair for dark enchantment (particularly in The Company of Wolves), perfectly captures the threatening beauty of New Orleans after midnight. The movie draws you in and enfolds you in a thick fog of menace. Jordan is a master of poetic, deceptive atmosphere. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to break the spell with a shocking image or a dash of morbid slapstick.

You’re probably sick of hearing about the Tom Cruise two-step: Everyone, including Rice, questioned his ability to play Lestat, the sardonic, sadistic, sophisticated vampire; then everyone, including Rice, did an about-face and said, Hey, he ain’t too shabby. I’d go further. This is perhaps Cruise’s best work since Born on the Fourth of July, and not just because he plays a villain. The qualities that Cruise’s detractors most resent — his air of self-satisfaction, his chiselled physical perfection — are just right for Lestat. He’s an American Lestat, just as the other major role is filled by an American, and I hardly think this should be the movie that turns us into purists demanding that French characters be played by French actors. This is not, after all, Napoleon — he’s a fictional character in a vampire movie. It’s an enormously entertaining performance, even if Cruise sounds dubbed some of the time. He’s such an evil sprite that the movie inevitably loses steam when he’s not around. But Jordan keeps the images coming.

Rice’s idea was to tell the story through the eyes of a more “innocent” vampire — Louis (Brad Pitt), a depressed young man who can’t accept the bottom line of vampirism. (Killing people is in the job description.) Louis forms a fatherly bond with Claudia (Kirsten Dunst in a chilling performance), the little girl he initiates into vampirism. Together, they flee to Paris, the setting for the film’s widely ridiculed but, I think, most upsetting sequence. The two stumble upon some sort of vampire theater group — Rice’s metaphor, maybe, for gays in the arts: hounded, misunderstood people of the night, who transform their skill at hiding their identities into the art of performance. (Of course, the vampires-as-gays metaphor probably isn’t meant to be pushed too far; readers will plug into what’s emotionally relevant to them, and disregard literal-minded details.)

The vampire performers stage a show in which they murder and drain a nude, terrified woman before a sickened audience (which thinks it’s all fake, part of the show). Throughout the movie, Jordan has toyed with our expectations: He knows we want to see blood sucked — that’s been the appeal of vampire movies since Murnau — but he brings out the cruelty of the act, the horror of a woman looking down to see a crimson stain spreading across her breast where Lestat has chomped her. In the theater sequence, Jordan forces us to question what we’ve been enjoying as bloody entertainment. The woman is sacrificed for our voyeuristic sins.

Interview with the Vampire could be a little tighter. The seemingly indestructible Lestat keeps popping up in various stages of decay, and Jordan doesn’t do enough with the vampiric code that states Thou Shalt Not Kill Fellow Vampires: Why are Louis and Claudia punished for killing Lestat, who never stays dead anyway? We spend most of our time with Louis, which is unfortunate, since Brad Pitt plays him as a sullen party-pooper. (Maybe that’s the trap of the character. One can’t help noticing that Rice’s subsequent books in the Vampire Chronicles focus on Lestat, not Louis.) And I hated the end-titles music: Guns ‘n Roses covering “Sympathy for the Devil.” If any rock star is a brother to Lestat, it’s Mick Jagger, and Jordan should have stuck with the Stones original. Otherwise, Interview is a rarity: an elegant, truly unsettling horror film in a mostly toothless period for American movies.

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