Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles Review
“That morning I was not yet a vampire, and I saw my last sunrise. I remember it completely, and yet I can't recall any sunrise before it. I watched its whole magnificence for the last time as if it were the first. And then I said farewell to sun light, and set out to become what I became.”
Famously courting controversy with its casting decisions, Neil (The Company Of Wolves) Jordan's adaptation of Anne Rice's bestselling novel, Interview With The Vampire - the first in what became The Vampire Chronicles - was one of the greatest examples of fanboy-and-critical egg-of-face in cinematic history. When even the celebrated (but rather overrated, in my opinion) author, herself, takes out a full-page ad in trade-Bible Variety decrying the choice of Hollywood pretty-boy and professional smiler Tom Cruise as her cherished vampiric anti-hero, Lestat, things have definitely swung into vitriolic overkill. Of course, Rice would then be forced not only to concede to the Cruiser's grinning fangs doing justice to the character but to the actor being absolutely superb in the role. Hence, a second full-page ad retracting her former sentiments and awarding Jordan's movie a slavish thumbs-up, Ebert-style, that brought the book's legions of gloomy, Byronic goth-lovers flooding in and rallying around the visual interpretation of their brooding immortals.
And the critics were pretty pleased with it, too.
What Jordan did was create a fabulously realised milieu of period drama, armoured it with an atmosphere of flamboyant misery and baroque character study, peopled it with intensely attractive and thematically androgynous protagonists and spilled blood by the extravagant bucket-load. He toyed with sexuality - both heterosexual and homosexual - and teased with twin-taboos of necrophilia and paedophilia, glamorising the lives and sins of its fringe-land characters and refusing us the option of any moral high ground. We associate with Brad Pitt's melancholic bore, Louis, and his faintly ridiculous death wish, using his staggeringly wretched life-story as our lynchpin in this world of dark depravity, and we simply swoon to Cruise's foppish predator, cutting a bloody swathe through the pampered excesses of high society in early New Orleans. Jordan and Rice, who actually wrote the screenplay, simply love dragging us through the opulence and the decay of this eternal night, giving us no heroes, no real villains and no clear-cut resolutions. For a horror film about bloodsucking vampires, Interview is a radical, brave and stately endeavour. That it works so supremely well - it is possibly the most intelligently thought-out exploration of the theme - is down to many different elements that all coalesce into one visually captivating and sensually realised whole, as we shall see. That is also ultimately frustrates with its lingering sense of being only part of a much greater tableau only adds to its charm and its innate haunting quality. A follow-up has been made, The Queen Of The Damned, with Stuart Townsend assuming the role of Lestat to infinitely lesser effect, but Interview With The Vampire will probably never be satisfyingly capped-off.
Sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco, Louis (Brad Pitt), tells his tale of cursed immortality to an avid and incredulous Christian Slater who records the veritable confession for ... well, who knows what ... the novelty of it all, perhaps. It is a tale of tragedy, false hopes and of an eternal hunger that can never be satiated. Hundreds of years old though retaining the youth of his former life as a human being, Louis recounts how, after losing his wife and child he wandered the lawless port of New Orleans in the hope that someone would have the courage to end his pain that he, himself, lacked, a vampire sought him out and offered him just such a chance of death, and a new life afterwards. Lestat (Tom Cruise), this Indian-giver, then becomes his constant companion, teaching him the ways of a vampire and leading him down a path of death, blood and sunless exile. The more killings that Lestat makes - a nightly diet of young girl first, then a “gilded youth” and finally a preening member of the aristocracy - the more poor Louis turns his back on such a path, opting to dine on rats, chickens and, in one alarmingly amusing instance, a couple of poodles instead. Despite his determination and the sheer “fun” he is keen to show Louis at what his newfound skills can provide him with, Louis refuses to shed the blood of a human. He will not kill, revealing something irritatingly alien and ultimately abhorrent to Lestat - that Louis is a vampire with a conscience and a soul.
“Vampires who pretend to be humans who pretend to be vampires.”
“How avant garde.”
Never satisfied with his lot and seeking answers to the mystery of his undead condition as well as, perhaps, a place of sanctuary, Louis and Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a young girl vampirised by Lestat so that she could become a companion to ease Louis' incessant moaning, travel to Europe in the hopes of meeting others of “their kind”. In Paris, they encounter a troupe of vampires who put on productions under the guise of Les Theatre Des Vampires - literally hiding in plain sight - and their leader, Armand (Antonio Banderas) seems to hold some of the answers that Louis seeks. But nothing is as it seems and the power of Lestat proves impossible is evade. Louis and Claudia also discover that whilst “their kind” can be magical and beautiful, they can also be a despicably cruel race when provoked.
Opulently produced and impeccably directed with a visual flair and an erotically charged undercurrent, Jordan's film rattles along with death and the enigmas of existence thrown constantly at us, whilst still seeming to take its time and allowing its gorgeously redolent atmosphere to enshroud us. The usual vampire antics are adhered to but without the sinister staging of a Hammer film or the knowingly cool savvy of most contemporary offerings. For a kick off, we are totally in the thrall of the neck nibblers, with all the leads being creatures of the night, so the conventional vampire-battling is lobbed right out of the window. Rice's book used vampirism as a conduit for romantic isolation and soul searching. Her characters were as genteel as they were cunningly murderous. Jordan's version clings pretty rigidly to that ethic, dressing up its leads in ruffled shirts with billowing sleeves, waistcoats and frock coats practically lost beneath the vast rolling locks of 17th Century bouffant. Preening bisexuality appears to be the order of the day yet, although most of the cast seem to desire one another, in true vampire style, that lust is never consummated except in blood. Still, for many people, seeing Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise making eyes at each other was decidedly off-putting. Cruise, himself, is reported to have had this homoerotism toned down. Yet, this colourful subtext is not so distracting at all and, in the spell of the story, totally understandable. Such creatures - so hyper-alert and sensitive (some, we are told, can even read minds) and smitten by the beauty of the night and the thrill of the hunt - are naturally drawn to one another by the mutual fear of eternal loneliness. Lestat needs Louis. Louis needs Claudia. Claudia needs something other than the damn dolls that Lestat keeps giving her. The story becomes a baton-change of heartache and dependency and the fact that it is Louis, himself, who appears to be the Jonah in all of this, is a clever unhinging of heroism. Louis is like a luck vampire, virtually draining good fortune from all those he meets.
The bloodletting, itself, is decadent - lashings of claret spill from nibbled wrists and the lascivious dining methods of Lestat, clearly relishing his suppers, can be both squirm-inducing and strangely enticing. Yet this is not a film of murder and frights, its meandering narrative one of intrinsic horror, its situation a downward spiral of failed dreams and mounting isolation. When Louis encounters the others of his kind that he so desperately seeks in order to find answers to his plight - the answers that Lestat would playfully refuse to give him - the film enters its more desperate and shocking phase. Les Theatre Des Vampires, presided over by the cynical Armand and enforced by Jordan regular Stephen Rea's clownishly evil Santiago is the catalyst for our understanding of this race. Whereas Lestat's provocative prowlings imbue him with a sense of the cavalier - he positively enjoys the liberation and cosmopolitan flavours of the New World, it is the land of opportunity even for vampires - Armand's underground society of corrupt mischief-makers have an in-bred hostility that renders them somewhat akin to a terrorist cell, undermining the witless human race with operatic guerrilla tactics. Lestat is an existentialist bohemian who wants nothing more than to party, literally drinking in the life he finds around him. Armand is a chief who has lost control of his tribe and the sense of his own direction in a world whose changes he can no longer keep up with. What unites these two opposing forces for Louis' trust is their desire for company. Lestat may act the fool but he craves someone to help him celebrate the joys of undeath, someone that he can show off to, but also shape as a protégé. Armand needs release from the endless cycle of darkness that smothers his world. He is an actor too, as are all of his devious “part-time” followers, but his façade is more doomed than Lestat's. Lestat can exist anywhere at any time, so long as he's had enough nourishment he can carry on adapting. But his more rigidly defined opposite number knows that he cannot properly be absorbed into each new era without subterfuge and allies, and his thirst for acceptance - even if it is only from the likes of the mournful, morose and forever moping Louis - is growing ever-more chaotic. More and more, the lamenting tone of the film seems to echo Louis' lost soul - and even champion its endless grieving.
It is worth noting that the sincere melancholy that pervades the story is a scar borne by Rice, who wrote the book shortly after her own five year old daughter died of leukaemia. But this fading, elegiac strain of loss running through Louis' vampiric odyssey is also a definite throwback to the gothic yarns of old, from the likes of Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein through to Gone With The Wind and Dragonwyck. In fact, Interview With The Vampire is actually a very assured familial melodrama with possibly the most dysfunctional family - that of Louis, Lestat and Claudia - of all. Well, apart from those redneck Texans with a handy chainsaw amongst their kitchen utensils, that is.
“You are a vampire who never knew what life was until it ran out in a big gush over your lips.”
I like the practical manner in which a vampire would choose to see the colours and the sunrises that his nocturnal restrictions would deny him - by sitting in a darkened theatre and watching movies. However, if you are going to use a pivotal clip from Murnau's Nosferatu then we should have been permitted a flicker of acknowledgment from Louis, I feel. Pitt's performance is necessarily depressing, but I can see how this would get on the nerves of some people and, indeed, there are times when even I grow as weary as Lestat over his mirthless demeanour. But Pitt does take his grave emotions to a deeper level than most of Tinseltown's other heart-throbs would have dared to go, ensuring that Louis truly becomes the broken heart of immortality. His phenomenal wallowing in despair in Legends Of The Fall had obviously been a great rehearsal for this. But it is funny how it would take a woman's point of view to declare so convincingly how someone would feel at the loss of such things as the blue of the Mediterranean, even as romantic as it may seem. This woman's outlook is possibly what subverts the traditions of the genre most of all. Dracula, be he Lugosi, Lee, Jourdan or Oldman is a sultry womaniser and veritable God of seduction. Donner's The Lost Boys taught us that sleeping all day and partying all night meant that it was fun to be a vampire. Kathryn Bigelow, another woman, yes, but a fierce tomboy, with Blue Steel and Point Break to her credit too, tackled the old world versus the new in Near Dark, but found an earthy solace in crafting a Western fable out of it. And Blade just gave them all guns, swords and wire-fu skills. Rice and director Jordan, so attuned to her lyricism and pessimistic amour, seek out and locates the beauty of sadness, transcending movie-of-the-week weepiness with delicious wordplay, ferocious midnight assignations and symmetrical character explorations, the angst becoming the point of it all, not just a manipulative, emotion-baiting device. I'm not saying that a man couldn't have come up with this diversion from the conventions of the vampire genre, just that it would be both unlikely and probably nowhere near as affecting if he had. Thus, it has to be something special that Jordan is able to bring to such a highly charged tale of doomed love, forlorn existence and self-loathing.
And he brings Cruise, Dunst, effects wizard Stan Winston - whose infamous throat-cutting and one-take transformation from eye-sparkling pale radiance to ghastly, grey and cadaverous is the stuff of legend - incredible design work from Dante Ferreti and spectral, shadow-bathed twilight photography from Philippe Rousselot. It is an alluring collection of talent to be sure. Cruise, so against type (well, in those less risk-taking days, anyway) as to be a different person altogether, is magnificent as Lestat. His entire performance is bewitching, humorous, frightening and wholly satisfying, perfectly embodying the refined savagery of a fanged flirt for whom even eternity is not long enough. But three of his scenes are absolute standouts. When Louis, enraged at what he has become - a poodle-biter (!) - takes Lestat and hurls him against the trees in the palatial gardens of a colonial mansion, watch Cruise as his rascally laugh at such ineffectual anger becomes truly ecstatic, his witty monster thoroughly enjoying provoking such emotions. The next is the sickening tormenting of the young whore as her life blood flows from her wrist and her breast, Lestat using her agonies as another testing lure for Louis to embrace the beast he has become. Cruise is beguiling, terrifyingly callous and, you have to admit it, wholly entertaining as he mocks her wretched pleas. And then, best of all, his awful putdown of Claudia - hurtfully mentioning the female “attributes” that she will never, herself, have. Now this is a truly sublime moment. As damning as he is being, you can sense that Lestat is in his own agony saying it. You always hurt most the ones you love and Lestat, so long the hunter and provider and now so sick and tired of the whining from his companions, can't help but lash out with that scathing, bitchy tongue of his, yet we can see the glimmer of pain in his eyes as he does so, his cutting reproach sweet agony in his own veins. His is a hugely complex character, the immortal party animal that hides his own unique turmoil under an acidic carnality. At least he doesn't wear his melancholy like a neon overcoat, like sourpuss Louis.
“Louis, what's happening to her?”
“She's dying. It happened to you too ... only you were too young to remember.”
Kirsten Dunst, of course, proved to be a revelation in the role of the twelve year old prised from her dead mother's arms to become a vampire and then becoming trapped in the prison of that doll-like body whilst her own mind and, most saddening of all, her inner-sexuality evolve. Again, it takes a woman's mind to conceive of such a harrowing plight and a man like Neil Jordan to wreak such devastating emotional conviction from his young actress. Claudia's homicidal tantrums and gruesome revenge are downright disturbing. The thing is, you totally believe that there is an anguished woman inside that body. Dunst's eyes convey so much feeling beyond her years that her portrayal of Claudia is possibly still her greatest performance. Moments when the camera merely regards her all-knowing expressions - when confronted by the reality of the vampires' play, for instance, or when she watches Louis finally bending to her will and putting the bite on a willing victim - linger disconcertingly in the mind for a long time afterwards.
The effects are dazzling. Early CG morphs visages as they drain of blood. Bodies crumble to dust in one of the most eerily upsetting of images. The slashed and gnawed-open flesh wounds look suitably uncomfortable - with often distressing sound effects thrown over the top to add to the unpleasantness - and the elegant spurting of blood is surprisingly plentiful. One particular scythe-aided severing is simply staggering and even if it didn't happen to someone so deserving, it would still garner applause for its sheer audacity. But it is often the little things that work the best. The deathly pallor of our main players, their finely etched blue veins striating their faces and the breathtakingly subtle gleam of their entrancing eyes, midnight gemstones that resemble a cross between those of a lynx and the best marbles in the bag.
“The world changes, we do not, there lies the irony that finally kills us.”
Both Ferreti and Rousselot work intimately to create wondrously evocative locales. The long shots of the port and the riverbank of the Mississippi seem almost throwaway and yet they packed with detail and colloquial colour. The Creole aesthetic is in exotic abundance around Louis' plantation and mansion and the trinkets and tranklements of plush town houses are mesmerising to behold. I love the statuary in Louis' gardens, overgrown and yet still delicate, the almost picturesque squalor of the sewers that he later finds himself in. But, naturally, it is the crypts beneath the Paris theatre that draw the most gasps - intricately designed with an almost regal darkness to them that doesn't depart even when they are fiercely ablaze. Rousselot loves his shadows and paints the sets with vast blankets of them, heightening the faces and the activities that we see puncturing them. Interview With The Vampire is a very dark film, indeed. You would almost have expected such a lush costume drama to be rife with colour and gaudy excess, yet save for a handful of exquisitely warmly rendered scenes, the film is chilly and austere, purposely as drained of vitality as its characters. You can literally feel the chill down in Armand's lair and the torches, from the voodoo-practising slaves outside Louis' plantation to the walls of the Parisian dungeons, actually give off a heat that you cling to, albeit fleetingly.
“Claudia... you've been a very ... very ... naughty ... little girl!”
But this excellence is also backed-up by Elliot Goldenthal delivering one of the finest scores of the nineties, the composer of Alien 3 and Batman Forever striving for grandeur in the both the most operatic and the most emotionally resonant aspects of the term. He takes the literacy of the screenplay and twines it around the instruments of the times, conjuring a wall of sound that is searingly eloquent, wildly thrilling and handsomely staged for a full orchestra yet finding power, intrigue and tragedy from a uniquely string-and choir-led approach. We are in an aural landscape suffused with violin solos, playful harpsichord, wild piano work and Goldenthal's glorious trademark French horn. It is a dark symphony, indeed, that wrings tears as well as awe.
The film does take a few wrong-turns however. The rhythm is patchy. When Lestat is not involved in things, Pitt and Banderas fail to trigger anywhere near as much sheer exuberance or pathos. The third act shocker of ritualistic vampire retribution and punishment is much too immediately wrought, denying us enough of a feeling of threat or intimidation during the Paris sequence. It is inarguable that Jordan supplies a huge amount of emotion during this set-piece, but it has followed-on too swiftly from a previous development to have us appreciate the loss as fully as we should. And then there is the knee-jerk, tacked-on finale which never seemed to work for me at the flicks or on many subsequent viewings. However, I will say that, more and more, I have gotten used to it and, although thoroughly anachronistic to most that of what has gone before, it is perfectly fitting with the character involved and certainly paves the way for what would become the next instalment, both in literary and film terms.
Not overtly a horror movie in the usual sense, Interview With The Vampire is, nevertheless, a full-blooded tale of darkness and depravity that expertly relocates us in time and atmosphere. Beguiling performances from Tom Cruise and Kirsten Dunst more than make up for the melancholy of Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas and the whole immersive quality of the saga is sumptuous and breathtaking. It may be an unusual take on the mythos of the vampire, but in its detail, character and gothic vitality, Neil Jordan's epic has gone on to become a classic that truly stands alone in style and quality.
Excellent, haunting and beautiful and a very strong 8 out of 10 from me.