Interview with the Vampire

Neil Jordan's $50 million film of Anne Rice's best-selling Interview With the Vampire is a major movie with major problems. Is it still worth seeing? Definitely. The good parts are that good. But it's one thing to write it in a review and another to say it in person to a potential ticket buyer who's in your face and wanting proof. Around this office, Interview really pushes people's buttons. They resent the unremitting hype, the glib cruelty of the genre and the casting of Tom Cruise as the blond, Byronic vampire Lestat (Rice resented it, too, but later recanted). The following "Interview With the Critic" will give you an idea of the hell raised when I recommend Interview to friends who can answer back.

Name one good thing about this movie.

I'll name five: The movie is hypnotic, scary, sexy, perversely funny and haunting in a way that taps into primal fears.

Get to the downside.

It can also be gross, snail paced and grindingly glum. You could say the same things — pro and con — about Rice's book.

What do you mean by "gross"?

Early on, Cruise slits the throat of a squirming rat, lets its blood drip into a wineglass and offers it to Brad Pitt, who plays a vampire in training, with a warning to drink up before it gets cold.

So you're an expert on Rice?

Read her book, OK? And the follow-up The Vampire Lestat — the second of four books in her Vampire Chronicles. We're not talking great literature, but the book is more than a guilty pleasure.

Hasn't Rice compared Lestat to Captain Ahab, Custer and Peter the Great?

Yes, but she's kidding herself.

But you still think "Interview" is strong material for a movie?

Damn straight. The plot pulls you in as soon as Lestat puts the bite on Louis de Pointe du Lac — that's Brad Pitt. He's a Louisiana plantation owner. Lestat was once a French aristocrat. He turns Louis into a vampire — there's an exchange of bodily fluids — because he likes pretty company and needs a nice place to stay. Louis regrets losing his humanity, and he and Lestat bicker for about 200 years.

That sounds dull.

Well, it is repetitive. The bodies pile up. Jordan has moved from The Crying Game to The Dying Game. New Orleans burns. Louis finds more vampires in Paris — Stephen Rea plays a dangerous one, Antonio Banderas plays a dangerously sexy one. Louis plots to kill Lestat, and they both end up in 1994 San Francisco, where Louis gets interviewed by a reporter, well played by Christian Slater, and Lestat gets hooked by his first earful of rock — Guns n'Roses sing the Stones.

But Cruise as a worldly aristocrat? Come on.

No argument. Daniel Day-Lewis — with his sensual, tormented face — was the perfect choice, but he turned down the part. Give Cruise credit for guts. It's an audacious performance. He broke ranks with the bland before in Risky Business, Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, but Interview is a real bust-out. Any star willing to kill women, children and pets onscreen is not that worried about protecting his image. Besides, Cruise's fratboy charm fits in with Jordan's concept.

What concept is that?

Jordan loves jolts: the chick with a dick in The Crying Game and now Cruise hiding fangs behind his big grin. He's using Hollywood's young studs to play characters willing to trade their souls for eternal youth and beauty. It's a sly joke. And the actors don't have to fake competitiveness.

Does Pitt hold his ground against Cruise?

He has the tougher role. Louis is the story's conscience, and Pitt's expressive eyes reflect the inner turmoil. But Louis' whining against the dying of the light is not as riveting as Lestat's wicked rage against the machine.

Isn't there a gay angle?

The camera holds the orgasmic moment when Lestat first lifts Louis high in the air and bites into his throbbing artery. But vampires can't have sex. It's the kill that excites them, and that transcends gender.

What about love?

Louis and Lestat are inextricably linked. They even take a shot at being a family by creating a child vampire out of Claudia, a young orphan played by Kirsten Dunst. Claudia is the film's most unnerving character. She learns the art of flirting from Lestat, cuddles with Louis in his coffin and murders indiscriminately. "I want some more," says Claudia after her first taste of blood. It's a twist on Oliver that Dickens never imagined. As the decades pass, Claudia becomes a woman trapped in a child's body. It's a chilling portrait and a triumph for Dunst, who is 12.

Why a kid vampire? What's the point?

Rice had a daughter named Michelle, who died of leukemia in 1972. During years of mourning in an alcoholic haze, Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire to help deal with her grief and loss. The book was published in 1976.

So "Interview" is cathartic for Rice?

For her and legions of fans who read in their own personal stories. Some equate vampirism with alcoholism, depression, sexuality, AIDS — you name it.

Isn't that a stretch?

Not really. Gothic fantasies have always lent themselves to metaphorical interpretation: Look at Frankenstein. To sell Interview as escapism is to sell it short.

But that's just what Cruise and Jordan are saying in the press — that it's a vampire movie.

Can you blame them? Metaphors are a stake in the heart at the box office.

What's wrong with a simple vampire movie?

They've been done, pardon the expression, to death. Rice used her life to give her fiction deeper meaning. It's the metaphors that give the film resonance.

Which metaphors, for instance?

Addiction, for one. The vampires are like the nomadic young junkies in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, hungry for their next fix and ready to lie, cheat, steal or kill to get it. Like Van Sant, Jordan gives the forbidden its rightful allure. The promise of immortality is some high.

What did Rice get that Jordan missed?

The pain of separation. In the book, Louis and Lestat leave behind friends and family. It's quite poignant. Jordan plunges right into darkness. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot uses only lanterns to illuminate this shadow world. The dimness is oppressive, and when the sun appears near the end, we squint against its deadly rays like they do. It's a devastating effect that earns sympathy for the devils. But it's only part of their story.

What's the rest?

The fading of human feeling. That's Louis' tragedy and ours, too. You don't have to be a vampire to know what it's like to sell out. But for all its visionary brilliance, the movie version of Interview never lets us close enough to see ourselves in Louis. We're dazzled but unmoved.

What will you say if others say different?

Bite me.

From The Archives Issue 697: December 15, 1994