Mortals will be lured but probably not smitten by the handsome bloodsuckers in “Interview With the Vampire.” Finally onscreen after innumerable failed attempts over nearly two decades, Anne Rice’s perennially popular novel has been given an intelligent, darkly voluptuous reading that rises to pulsating life numerous times during the course of its deadly journey. But the film also has its turgid, dialogue-heavy stretches, and the leading performances, if acceptable, are not everything they needed to be to fully flesh out these elegant immortals. High want-to-see and curiosity factor, Tom Cruise, Rice’s reputation and a highly fueled marketing drive will deliver toothsome B.O. through the holiday season.
The author’s recent self-publicized change of heart notwithstanding, the controversy over Cruise’s casting as the commanding vampire Lestat will certainly heat up again once the film comes out. But what fans of the book will see is just about as faithful a rendition of the narrative as could possibly be managed in a two-hour film. All the main characters and crucial events are here, given vivid dimension against a sumptuous backdrop.
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What unsuspecting viewers will get is a bloody, often dour period piece in which an assortment of tortured characters struggle with their vampire natures and each other as they test the limits of immortality and lack of morality. On a pure visceral level of thrills for a modern audience, the picture has its share of riveting moments, although it tends to back off from displays of heavy gore and excess.
Regardless of one’s familiarity with the source, what’s missing is a strong sense of emotional exchange and development among the main characters. The intense bonds of love, resentment and hatred that arc through the centuries among Lestat, Louis, the vampire he creates, and their “daughter,” Claudia, are only lightly felt due to the compressed series of events, reduced motivations and lack of thesp chemistry.
Director Neil Jordan and his richly talented team set a wonderfully evocative mood from the outset, as the camera swoops over the Bay Bridge and down into nocturnal San Francisco to light upon the exquisite, immaculate Louis (Brad Pitt), who is ready to pour his life story into a tape recorder for an interviewer (Christian Slater) in an empty room on Market Street.”I’m flesh and blood, but not human,”Louis declares to his startled interlocutor. “I haven’t been human in 200 years.”
How he became so sends the story back to 1791 Louisiana, where the 24 -year-old widower Louis is singled out by the devilishly handsome, courtly Lestat (Cruise). Instead of just sucking Louis’ blood and killing him, Lestat takes him to the brink of death and then has Louis drink from him, thus giving his victim the gift of ageless, endless life.
So, after a look at his last sunrise, Louis joins Lestat on the ceaseless nightly prowl for prey. Whereas Lestat is relentless and remorseless, favoring tasty young men and women and especially aristocrats, Louis retains a tortured regard for human life and mostly turns to animals for sustenance.
Their debauched bachelor existence suddenly changes with the arrival of Claudia. Finding the young girl grieving next to her plague-victim mother, Louis uncharacteristically decides to drink her blood.
Immortalized by Lestat, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) becomes their vampire daughter and partner, possessing a hunting instinct to rival Lestat’s while enjoying a special affair of the heart with Louis that includes bunking with him in his coffin.
But even after many years, Claudia cannot forgive Lestat for locking her into the body of a child, with no hope of maturing into a woman. Diabolically, she executes a scheme to kill the master vampire Lestat, as Louis ambivalently watches.
Tale’s second half takes Louis and Claudia to Europe, where their search for others of their kind leads them to the sinister Theatre des Vampires in 1870 Paris. Here, jaded upper-class audiences thrill as vampires enact little skits before getting down to the main event, the killing of a sacrificial victim.
Leader of this macabre troupe is the magnetic Armand (Antonio Banderas), who becomes the sort of mentor Louis has always sought to teach him the secrets of vampire life in the way Lestat never did.
But just as Louis creates for Claudia the mother she always needed, vampire revenge brings tragedy to the little group, forcing Louis to take matters into his own hands before heading off into the centuries for a rendezvous with his past and future.
All of this is enacted in a world of unyielding darkness — punctuated only by the colorful costumes, blood, fire and unnaturally light skin of the vampires — which comes to seem like both a blessing and a curse.
Brad Pitt’s Louis is handsome and personable, but there is no depth to his melancholy, no pungency to his sense of loss. He also doesn’t seem to connect in a meaningful way with any of the other actors except, perhaps, to Slater’s interviewer. This is unfortunate because his profound feelings for Claudia, Lestat and Armand are meant to be among the primary driving forces of the story.
Also coming up short of ideal is Cruise’s Lestat. While not as physically imposing as one imagines the character on the printed page, it’s easy to get used to his looks. The bigger problem is that Lestat has been stripped of much of his meanness, his sarcastic, bullying manner and threatening force, which seriously lessens the reasons for Louis’ unhappiness and Claudia’s revenge.
When Banderas strides upon the stage in the second half, one suddenly witnesses the kind of compelling, charismatic presence a master vampire should have. This type of natural dominance and superiority doesn’t come through in Cruise’s Lestat.
Dunst is just right in the difficult part of the child vampire, while Stephen Rea oozes and sneers his way around as Armand’s evil henchman. Slater brings welcome energy and humor to the inquisitor role that River Phoenix was to play (the film is dedicated to the late actor), and Laure Marsac registers briefly but strongly as the centerpiece of the Paris vampires’ theatrical spectacle.
The production, which seductively combines location shooting in three of the world’s most beautiful cities with exemplary studio work, is superb. Dante Ferretti’s production design respects both the realism of the locales and the fantastic demands of the vampire milieu, particularly when the story enters the quasi-religious, catacomb-like world of the theater company.
Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell have outdone themselves in the entirely appropriate lavishness of their work, and Philippe Rousselot’s exceedingly dark lensing makes both sets and costumes appear as the only visual relief in a world otherwise cloaked in unending gloom.
Stan Winston’s vampire makeup and effects are also among the picture’s highlights. These monsters are distinguishable from humans most notably by the tiny blue veins visible beneath their pale skin, and the transformation scenes of Louis and Claudia are stunning and even moving because of the expertness and utter believability with which they are done.
Final jewel in the crown of artistic contributions is Elliot Goldenthal’s outstanding score, which hints at the diverse influences of Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman and Erik Satie while developing a rambunctious life of its own that adds immeasurably to the film’s character.
Ending provides a little twist on that of the book that easily sets up a sequel if one proves warranted. Rice’s “Vampire” story has made it securely onto the screen, even if its blood has been somewhat diluted in the process.