My own Vampire Diaries.
I have to admit, when the film adaptation of “Interview With The Vampire” first came out in 1994, I had little interest. I hadn’t yet read any of author Ann Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” books, and I wasn’t much of a vampire buff (save for a handful of movies). I loved the Universal Monsters growing up (and still do), but I was more of a Frankenstein, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon fan. But my sister urged me to give “Interview…” a try, so I eventually broke down and rented it on laserdisc one night (this was 1995; DVDs weren’t a thing yet, let alone blu-rays or streaming). I had almost no idea what to expect when I placed that 12” shiny disc into my laserdisc player. In short, I was pleasantly surprised, but that first viewing alone didn’t quite make me a fan yet. That appreciation would come later with repeated viewings.
At the urging of a friend, I also started reading Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” novels (“Interview…” “The Vampire Lestat”, “Queen of the Damned”, “Tale of the Body Thief” and “Memnoch the Devil”). Upon reading them, I instantly understood the Tom Cruise casting controversy (Cruise was quite far from the book’s blonde, blue-eyed, 6 ft. tall French aristocrat-vampire). That said, his performance still grew on me, and I began to understand why Rice herself eventually changed her mind. Suffice it to say that by the mid-to-late 1990s, I was a fan of both the film and Rice’s books. Director Neil (“The Crying Game”) Jordan’s sumptuous adaptation of “Interview With The Vampire” captures the rich imagery and melancholy of Rice’s seminal 1976 novel, despite some liberties taken.
****BITING SPOILERS AHEAD!****
The film begins with a nearly unbroken helicopter shot overlooking San Francisco (gorgeous cinematography by Philippe Rousselot) and haunting, eerie music by Eliot Goldenthal (arguably his best score). These elements set the tone for the film; Anne Rice’s novel was getting the A-list treatment.
Within a room overlooking Union Square, we see Louis (Brad Pitt) looking out of the window, while the ‘interviewer’ Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater, a tragically last-minute replacement for the late River Phoenix) sets up his tape recorder for another in his FM radio profile series. Malloy is a “collector of lives,” interviewing random people on the street whom he finds intriguing. Louis certainly fits that bill with his pale veiny skin, long ponytailed hair and unnaturally bright green eyes. After a brief establishment of his supernatural ‘credentials,’ the interview begins….
200 years earlier, Louis was a young, grieving Creole plantation owner who lost his wife and child (his beloved brother in the book). Feeling suicidal, he drinks and gambles his money away until he is noticed by a watchful vampire named Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise, arguably miscast, yet delivering a strong performance). Lestat offers Louis the choice of forsaking this mortal life for another… an immortal existence untouched by disease or decay. Louis accepts, and says his “farewell to daylight” the next day. Following the brief death of his mortal coil, Louis is reborn, seeing the world anew with his “vampire eyes.”
Sooner after his rebirth, Louis is taken out on hunting excursions into New Orleans with his tutor Lestat. The two of them prey on ‘evildoers’, as Lestat finds their blood tastier. The guilt-ridden Louis doesn’t yet have the cunning or desire to kill indiscriminately, and he fails repeatedly. Lestat grows increasingly impatient with his new ‘student’, as Louis clings to the vestiges of his humanity…feeling too much empathy for his would-be meals to be a successful vampire.
The conscience-stricken Louis tries to reconcile his old life with the new, as his slaves soon revolt against their master, fearing him to be in league with the devil (“Westworld” ’s Thandie Newton plays Louis’ doomed servant Yvette). Louis, in a fit of angst and rage, sets his slaves free and burns down his own estate.
The two wandering vampires further their master-apprentice relationship, with Lestat bitterly trying to teach a remorseful Louis the ABCs of vampirism (including useful survival tricks, such as draining the blood of rats when needed). Yearning to be free of Lestat’s cruel teachings, Louis chances upon an orphaned child named Claudia (a very young Kirsten Dunst, in one of the finest child horror performances since Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”). Claudia’s father has abandoned her, and her mother is dead from the plague. Louis has a moral lapse, hungrily drinking young Claudia’s blood, but stopping just short of killing her; Lestat finishes the process, but uses his own blood to convert the little orphan into a vampire (creating a child vampire is an abomination, we later learn).
Claudia turns out to be more like her new ‘father’ Lestat than Louis; sharing Lestat’s thrill of the hunt, and surprising both with her own voracious appetite. Troubles arise as the decades wear on, and Claudia realizes she is now a woman locked in an immortal child’s body. Lestat treats her like a prized pupil, while Louis treats her more like a beloved companion… a true daughter. Over time, Lestat refines Claudia’s hunting skills, and much of the movie’s dark humor come from the family’s hunting excursions (the doll-maker and piano tutor’s deaths eliciting two of the film’s grimmest chuckles).
Eventually the dysfunctional and deadly trio’s relationship turns toxic, as Louis and Claudia begin to resent the controlling and overbearing Lestat, the patriarch of their vampiric family. Claudia, angered by her stunted child stature, plots to kill her ‘father’, with Louis as her willing accomplice.
The two vampires nearly succeed in killing Lestat (twice) and flee aboard a transatlantic oceanic voyage, seeking others of ‘their kind’ in exotic locations around the world. During the day, they hide in the lower decks of the ship, feeding off of random passengers (who appear to die of a mysterious ‘disease’).
Eventually settling in Paris, Louis and Claudia encounter a Grand Guignol-style theatrical troupe; a troupe of vampires pretending to be mortals pretending to be vampires (!). The leader of the troupe is Armand (Antonio Banderas, whose casting deviates considerably from the book; far more so than Cruise’s Lestat). Armand is immediately drawn to Louis, seeing the beautiful vampire as his conduit to this ‘new world.’ At 400 years old, Armand is bored with his decadent theatrical troupe and wants to move on. He believes Louis is the ‘fresh blood’ he needs. The child-vampire Claudia, on the other hand, is seen by the troupe as an abomination; her murdering of Lestat is also considered to be the “one true crime” among vampires…killing one of their own.
Just as Louis creates a new vampire from a willing Parisian woman named Madeleine (Domiziana Giordano) who seeks to be a ‘mother’ to Claudia, the three of them are kidnapped by the troupe and sentence is passed upon them for their ‘heresies.’ Louis is locked in a iron-levered coffin, while Claudia and her new ‘mother’ find themselves in a deep well…with a grated ceiling exposed to the approaching dawn. They’re reduced to ashen figures…
Louis is soon ‘rescued’ by Armand. Mad with grief over the loss of Claudia, Louis exacts brutal revenge upon the entire troupe, most of whom he burns alive in their coffins. Louis, barely escaping the flaming carnage with his own life, is offered safety by Armand in a carriage shielded from the encroaching daylight.
The distraught Louis leaves Paris for America again, and finds a rapidly changing world. It’s there that the solitary vampire discovers sunlight again through the mechanical magic of the cinema.
After decades spent settled back into New Orleans, Louis picks up a nearly undetectable scent of death …finding a starved, semi-feral Lestat residing within the remnants of a deserted mansion. Saying his goodbyes (and apologies) to Lestat, Louis leaves him once again…bringing his story to the present, with he and Malloy in mid-1990s San Francisco.
Malloy is stunned by Louis’ epic tale, and volunteers himself as a ‘companion’ vampire for Louis, failing to heed the lessons of the vampire’s lonely, hollow existence. Louis then grabs Malloy and goes full vamp, roaring at the young man, “Do you like this? Do you like being food for the immortals? Do you like dying?!” He abruptly leaves the shaken Malloy without a trace. Malloy grabs his tapes, and runs to his Mustang convertible, eager to broadcast Louis’ story as soon as possible. He speeds along towards the Golden Gate…
The final scene is an abrupt, humorous departure from the novel as a half-starved Lestat jumps out from the back seat and drains Malloy to the point of near-death (managing to steer the car as well). As the tapes of Louis’ long interview play in the car’s stereo, Lestat bemoans Louis’ incessant “whining.” He turns to the nearly unconscious Malloy and says, “Have you heard enough? I’ve had to listen to that, for centuries.” Taking the wheel, a recovering Lestat then offers his victim the choice that he himself never had.
* The closing credits begin over a rousing Guns N’ Roses cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” *
Casting Choices: The Elephant in the Tomb.
I want to delve into the single biggest issue with the movie; the controversial casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt. Obviously a 5’ 7” American action movie star wouldn’t be my first choice for the role, especially after reading several of Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” novels. While the movie adaptation languished in development hell for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were (at that time) more apt choices for the role. The late Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”) would’ve been a perfect choice as Lestat, with his blonde hair, icy blue eyes, malleable accent and aristocratic bearing. There were perhaps other choices as well, such as Julian Sands (“Warlock”). Director Neil Jordan however (over Rice’s understandable objections) wanted a bankable star. Given the movie’s then-‘controversial’ gay subtext (a virtual non-issue today), Jordan probably assumed the movie would need as many chances to succeed as possible. Even Rice herself considered rewriting Lestat as a female to be more ‘hetero-friendly.’ That choice would’ve been a great shame, since the Vampire Chronicles books were (and are) milestones in pansexual literature.
Tom Cruise, circa 1993, was a huge star, and he had acting chops. If you have any doubt, check out his Oscar-nominated role as Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in 1989’s “Born On The 4th Of July” (one of Cruise’s and Oliver Stone’s best movies, IMO). Tom Cruise is one hell of an actor (I won’t get into his Scientology business, because it’s none of mine), but even the best actor can be cast in the wrong role. Robert De Niro wouldn’t be my first choice to play the late Martin Luther King, for example. That said, the miscast Cruise truly gives his all into the role, imparting Lestat with that certain unstable energy that Cruise brings to some of his better roles, including “Risky Business”, “Born On The 4th…” and “Jerry McGuire.” Anne Rice saw the rough cut of Jordan’s film and immediately, publicly withdrew her objection to Cruise’s casting. One can argue that as a screenwriter adapting her own book for the movie, Rice had a vested interest. That’s a possibility. But from my perspective, Tom Cruise’s performance as Lestat does work for the film. I can certainly imagine other actors in the role, but for this version, Cruise’s performance works well enough.
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas is arguably more miscast as the ancient vampire “Armand.” Banderas is in stark contrast to the book’s blonde, cherub-faced, Russian-born immortal. The film’s Armand, with his pale makeup and long black hair, looks more like a figure out of Japanese kabuki than a 14th century Eastern European teenager. If one is unfamiliar with the character from Rice’s novels, then Banderas’ casting works very well for the role indeed. His flirtations with Louis are sold with just the right level of attraction and envy. Like Cruise, Banderas is a wrong choice made right through sheer force of the actor’s will and ability. In fact, I prefer Banderas’ more commanding version of Armand for this film.
Irish actor Stuart Townsend would later play Lestat in the 2002 quasi-sequel, “Queen of the Damned” (adapted from two of Rice’s books), directed by Michael Rymer (director of 2003’s excellent reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”). “Queen…” is much more of a pop-approach to the material. If “Interview…” is the PBS Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Rice’s works, then “Queen…” is the CW Network’s answer. Despite major story truncation (adapting two lengthy books into a single 101 minute film) and a far worse defiling of the original source material, the movie still works as an entertaining standalone flick, largely due to a fantastic soundtrack (Marilyn Manson at his best) and compelling performances by both Townsend and the tragically late Aaliyah (1979-2001) as the titular Queen, who gives a slinky, seductive, almost serpentine performance.
Summary of the “Interview”.
The performances throughout the film are generally excellent, despite some controversial choices (the aforementioned Cruise and Banderas). Brad Pitt is perfect as the conscience-stricken Louis (de Pointe du Lac). He is the very embodiment of longing and regret. Kirsten Dunst, at her then-age of 10 or 11, is simply astonishing as little Claudia. We see a clear progression from abandoned post-toddler to star pupil to frustrated adult. All of this from an actor who is, or was at the time, only a child herself. Director Neil Jordan drew the absolute best from his actors.
The film also greatly benefits from Philippe Rousselot’s absolute gorgeous cinematography, whose candle-lit period scenery rivals that of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975) or Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” (1984). Nearly the entire film is shot at night, early dawn or twilight, yet it is never muddy or indistinct. Director Neil Jordan’s pacing (particularly in the middle act) feels a bit more languid now, but I attribute that more to ever-shrinking audience attention spans of today than as a genuine flaw of the film itself.
Over the last 25 years my opinion of “Interview With The Vampire” has evolved from vague curiosity into strong appreciation. It is arguably one of the better vampire films of all time, right up there with “Nosferatu” (1922), Hammer’s “Dracula” (1958), “Near Dark” (1987) and “Let the Right One In” (2008).
Unlike those other vampire movies, “Interview…” is less of a traditional horror film than it is a meditation on immortality, examining the cost such a Faustian bargain would incur. Immortality is far more personally compelling for me now (especially well into my middle age) than any blood-sucking or coffin-slumbering.
Rumor has it that Anne Rice is currently adapting her books as a new television or streaming series, which is the ideal medium to allow her extensive material the necessary breathing room. Given the popularity of the pulpy, saccharine “Twilight” movies and “Vampire Diaries” TV series, this might be the right time to introduce newer, younger audiences to an A-grade alternative.
Whether a new “Vampire Chronicles” series emerges or not, 1994’s “Interview With The Vampire” has aged remarkably well. With the passage of time, the film’s once debatable physical casting choices are easier to dismiss in the post-“Hamilton” age, as is the formerly ‘controversial’ pansexuality which seems almost quaint today. In attempting to adapt Anne Rice’s rich, layered novel into a profitable, A-list Hollywood blockbuster, this movie is quite possibly as good as it will ever get.