A Feast Of Rats, Blood And Wild Rice

The most eagerly anticipated movie of the season, Neil Jordan's Interview With the Vampire, ignited a high level of inane squabbling before anyone had seen a frame of it. The call to arms was led by outraged novelist/diva Anne Rice herself, furious at the casting of Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat. But having lit the fire, Rice then scrambled to put it out when she saw the film. In a breathless two-page ad, she proclaimed that her wildest dreams had come true. Clearly more than literature was at stake: to the rabid fans of Rice's luxuriantly decadent vampire cosmology, "Interview With the Vampire" was somewhere between a sacred text and an alternate lifestyle that had to be vigorously defended.

I can see why the author was pleased. For better and worse, Jordan takes Rice on her own terms. He doesn't dilute her polymorphously perverse eroticism, her melancholy philosophizing or her zeal for punctured flesh. And what he adds-flashes of dark humor--are a welcome respite from the tone of lugubrious regret that fuels this tale of an overly sensitive vampire, Louis (Brad Pitt), whose vestigial humanity is at war with his ruthless vampirical nature.

At its core, "Interview" is an existential Gothic. Its protagonist, a Louisiana plantation owner in 1751 when he is converted to la vie vampire by the dastardly Lestat, is an alienated hero before his time. It's his unfortunate fate, being immortal, that he has to drag his suffering soul through all time, preferring grief to nothing. But how do you dramatize what is essentially an inner struggle? The movie, like the book, offers a series of set pieces--alternately bewitching and monotonous--instead of a real story.

Visually, it's a triumph. Confined to the nocturnal, but finding a style that unities 18th-century New Orleans, 1870s Paris and 1990s San Francisco, Jordan and his great team--cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Dante Ferretti, costumer Sandy Powell and special-effects makeup artist Stan Winston--conjure up splendid visions of elegant depravity.

The cast is likewise a feast for the eyes. Pitt cuts a smoldering figure as the tortured Louis, his long hair cascading beautifully, As the heartless Lestat, a blond Cruise looks dashingly predatory. Kirsten Dunst's curly-haired Claudia, the little girl the two men vampirize into their "family," and who comes to hate her eternal entrapment in an undergrown body, manages to assume an eerie agelessness. And Antonio Banderas is a commanding Armand, the ancient leader of the Theatre des Vampires in Paris, where vampires pretend to be actors pretending to be vampires for the titillation of the audience.

But Rice's ornate, vaguely 19th-century locutions prove harder to masten Pitt has both the hardest role and the hardest time: his sullen, inarticulate style can be distractingly contemporary. Not surprisingly, he's at his best in the present-day scenes, where a nervous Christian Slater is recording Louis's story. Cruise works hard to affect a haughty, supercilious manner, and he's not bad, but you sense that both these men are struggling to find a style any number of classically trained actors could pull off in their sleep (they just wouldn't look so good). There are times you wish this "Interview" were a silent movie.

For all its queasy scenes of rat-eating and throat-slashings, "Interview" isn't a horror movie. It's not meant to scare, because we're asked to identify with the vampires, not their victims. The dramatic problem Jordan can't quite surmount is that there isn't a whole lot at stake. Can a murderer hold on to his scruples, or will he succumb to the emptiness of immortal vampire life? Yet I found myself admiring Jordan's brave attempt to translate Rice's kinky fatalism to the screen. This is not a movie that holds up under daytime logic. It's about seduction, and either you succumb to its inky entrapments or you resist. When its mojo was working, I was happy to be had.

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