Anne Rice (1941-2021)
It was an awful way to begin my birthday, reading a news alert on my phone that a favorite author of mine, Anne Rice, had passed away following a stroke at the age of 80. The author, whose own fascination with immortality was realized through her vampires, witches and other godlike beings, joins her late husband, poet Stan Rice, and her late daughter Michele (1966-1972). She was attended in her final hours by her son, author Christopher Rice (“The Snow Garden,” “Density of Souls”). I wanted to pay tribute to Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles series I all but devoured back in the 1990s. Rice gave me an interest in the vampire world I’d never experienced. In fact, she created an interest in vampire fiction for me where little-to-none had previously existed.
Out With the Old.
When I was a kid, I loved monster movies of all kinds. I loved Japanese keiju-eiga movies like the Godzilla films, and the ‘classier’ entries…the Universal monster movies; the gold standard. Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf-Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and the Mummy. I ate those films up as a kid. The only one of the lot I wasn’t so fond of was also, ironically, one of the most popular worldwide–Dracula.
At age 7 or 8, I was far too young to grasp the sexual underpinnings to the story (a bit more evident in the Spanish-language version of 1931’s “Dracula”), let alone the desire for immortality (at age 8, you already feel immortal anyway), so Bela Lugosi’s legendary performance was kinda lost on me at that time. In my early teens, I would catch the miniseries of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” (1979) on TV, and its scenes of the floating, undead Glick boys, scratching at fog-blinded windows to be let in, certainly gave me plenty of nightmare fuel, but I still wasn’t a vampire fan, per se. Much later, I would catch the 1922 silent classic “Nosferatu” (director F. W. Murnau’s “symphony of horror” adaptation of Dracula) on cable TV, and I clearly saw where Tobe Hooper found inspiration for his version of Salem Lot’s “Mr. Barlow” (Reggie Nalder). Yes, the occasional vampire movie was fine, but I was much more interested in Frankenstein, or the other creatures. They were so much more otherworldly to me than some Romanian count who looked otherwise human. To be honest, I found Count Dracula a bit…dull. Just not my thing.
I did enjoy the blaxploitation horror flicks “Blacula” (1972) and “Scream Blacula Scream” (1973), but those were a bit more on the parody side, so I appreciated them as sendups with occasional horror moments (despite amazing performances in both by the late William Marshall, who gave the role his all). The vampire genre was tired blood for me–resorting to the same cliches of a regal guy in a cape with fangs and a vaguely East European accent. In 1995, on the advice of my sisters, I rented the laserdisc of the then-popular film, “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) and curled up in front of my little Sony Trinitron after work to watch it one autumn night…
From the haunting opening title music by Elliot Goldenthal to the lush cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, I was digging it. Brad Pitt, as the tormented colonial American vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac, gave audiences a glimpse inside an epic, 224-year old immortal’s tale told freely to an eager young writer (Christian Slater). Personally, I found the immortality angle of Louis’ story far more interesting than the horror elements. At that time, I’d not yet read any of Rice’s books, but that would soon change.
Anne Rice had adapted her own 1976 novel for the screenplay, which was directed by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”), and stirred a bit of controversy by initially (and publicly) blasting Jordan’s choice of Tom Cruise to play her character of Lestat de Lioncourt, the tall, blonde, French nobleman turned bloodsucker who comes to America and seduces Louis into an eternal life condemned to the shadows of night. “Top Gun” Tom Cruise was clearly not blond, nor tall, and was very American. However, as I watched the film, I had the sense that Cruise was really pushing his own boundaries–this wasn’t “Mav” of Top Gun, nor was it Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic from “Born on the 4th of July.” Cruise threw himself so completely into the role that he later earned a printed retraction from Rice, who publicly praised the actor’s work shortly before the film’s release. Tom Cruise (and Brad Pitt) give the movie a lot more star power and energy than it might’ve had if Jordan cast unknowns. Cruise as Lestat, while admittedly miscast, ultimately works.
Note: Whether Rice’s retraction was sincere or studio-mandated, it hardly matters; Cruise truly gives the role all he’s got. I’ve come to respect the performance more and more each time I see the film.
While I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film when I first saw it, it intrigued me enough to see it multiple times, eventually becoming a fan. These days, it’s a Halloween staple. I became so intrigued by the characters that I began to read more of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books, beginning with “Interview…” (1976), moving on to “The Vampire Lestat” (1985) and “Queen of the Damned” (1988), before eventually reading “Tale of the Body Thief” (1992) and “Memnoch the Devil” (1995) later on. I eagerly devoured them, one by one, and was spellbound by Anne Rice’s lush prose and eye for period/place details, which made the books truly come alive for me.
The once-controversial omnisexuality of her vampire characters never bothered me at all (even as a boring, garden-variety cisgender male), because it opened my eyes to the experiences of others, which is the very point of reading a book, seeing a film, or enjoying any good work of art–to leave one’s own headspace for a time, and temporarily occupy someone else’s. A book fan should seek books outside of their daily experience, race, gender, or sexuality. Books are a wonderful resource to gain empathy into the lives of others. Anne Rice’s books in particular, were revelatory for me. I would come home from my boring job in middle management and lose myself in the minds of immortal beings who experienced centuries as I would experience weeks. “Interview with the Vampire” is more like an intra-view of a vampire; through Rice’s words, we see what makes these glamorous immortals tick, and can experience their extensive lifespans in a few hundred pages.
After reading the core books of her Vampire Chronicles, I read a bit more about Anne Rice the person, and was intrigued by just how much of her own story is in her works. Born in New Orleans (like Louis), the writer and her husband moved to San Francisco (where “Interview…” begins), eventually spanning the globe, but with Louisiana and California remaining as critical focal points for other stories in the Vampire Chronicles series. Her literary family included poet husband Stan Rice (1942-2002) and her surviving son Christopher (b. 1978). One of the most personal and haunting characters of Rice’s was the child named Claudia, who was found as starving to death by Louis in “Interview…” before being turned into a vampire herself by Lestat, who always enjoyed an opportunity to corrupt innocence whenever he could. The character of Claudia is an avatar of Rice’s own daughter Michele, who succumbed to childhood leukemia a month shy of her 6th birthday in 1972.
One might think that the loss of a child, a most traumatic event for any parent, would be a taboo subject for an author writing a gothic horror story, but Rice managed to turn her devastating loss into catharsis–reimagining her own daughter, halted in her childhood, as a powerful creature of the night. As with her real-life inspiration, Claudia eventually dies. In Claudia’s case, she is executed as retribution for her own attempted murder of Lestat (the greatest sin among vampires; killing their own), and is reduced to ashes when inescapably trapped in a powerful shaft of sunlight. Claudia’s own vampirism sealed her fate, just as Michele’s own leukemia took her life–both being ‘diseases of the blood.’ Louis’ grief over Claudia’s loss launches a vengeance spree as he immolates the lair of vampires who murdered his beloved ‘daughter.’ This may have been Rice’s own way of ‘avenging’ the leukemia that killed her own beloved Michele.
In 2002 came the release of another adaptation of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles to the big screen; “Queen of the Damned.” This latest adaptation would compress two of Rice’s vampire books (“The Vampire Lestat,” “Queen of the Damned”) into a thin, 104 minute film that feels more like something from old school MTV than anything from Anne Rice. Unlike Cruise’s casting controversy in the 1994 film, the controversy overshadowing the release of “Queen…” would be the tragic death of 22 year old singer/actress Aaliyah (Aaliyah Dana Haughton). Aaliyah played the title role of Akasha, an ancient Egyptian whose possession by demons made her the very mother of the vampire race. Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash in 2001, which pushed the film’s release into February of the following year. Despite a magnificent, almost serpentine performance from the late singer, the film would be a box office dud–making only $43 million worldwide against a budget of $35 million.
Despite the movie’s missteps (a lack of depth, and some weak casting in key roles), the lead performances by Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend as Lestat are definite attributes. Townsend delivers a Lestat closer in spirit (if not looks) to the novel’s arrogant, noble-bred bloodsucker, but the film is mired in style over substance, while the other characters don’t quite draw us in as deeply as the vampires of “Interview…” That said, the movie’s powerhouse goth-rock soundtrack (featuring songs by Marilyn Manson and others) does add a lot to its overall entertainment value. To her credit, Anne Rice kept a healthy distance from the quasi-sequel’s creation, and that decision was wise on her part, since the scant 104 minute running time could hardly do justice for two of her books. Unlike her own 1994 adaptation of “Interview…”, Rice had no hand in the quasi-sequel’s screenplay.
Ideally, I would love to see more of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books get the full miniseries treatment someday, as rumored for several years now. Such length would be the best way to do the books full justice. The latest rumors have actor Sam Reid (“The Astronaut Wives”) cast as Lestat for the forthcoming AMC miniseries, but it’s unclear how or if Rice’s passing (not to mention the current COVID pandemic) might affect the targeted 2022 release date of AMC’s miniseries. AMC (including its AMC+ streaming service) also acquired the rights to Rice’s “The Mayfair Witches” novel trilogy (1990-1994), some characters of which have crossed over into later “Vampire Chronicles” books, written in the early 2000s. Rice’s last Lestat book was 2018’s “Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat,” which saw Lestat trying to unify the various vampire factions as he grapples with his own limitations as ruler.
1976’s “Interview with the Vampire” arguably created a new appreciation of vampires among college-age kids in the decades to come. It’s easy to see the appeal for late-teens and twenty-somethings who read these books; the stories about old souls ‘trapped’ in youthful bodies, forever gazing into the ‘normal’ world from an outsider’s perspective. I would hardly consider myself a “goth kid” when I read the books (more like a working-class schlub), but I definitely found my own hook into these stories.
After Rice’s vampires made their way into the cultural zeitgeist, we began to see waves of brooding, beautiful, hipper vampires rapidly displacing the cultured, cape-wearing counts of Bram Stoker. In the 1990s (the era of Grunge and “Friends”) vampires became more down to Earth, and even humorous. The 1992 comedy “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would spawn a far more memorable (and successful) TV series (1997-2003). Buffy’s success led to the spinoff series, “Angel” (1999-2003), which saw Buffy’s vampiric ex-beau Angel (David Boreanaz) open a detective agency in Los Angeles as part of his enteral atonement. While the soulful Angel experienced much of Louis’ guilt and anguish, the Billy Idol-coiffed Spike (James Marsters) embodied the recklessness and arrogance of Lestat. While created by Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”), both characters were clearly inspired by the works of Anne Rice.
Note: There was a throwaway line in “Buffy” (Season 5’s “Fool For Love”) where Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) almost lets slip to a bartender that Billy Idol actually got his signature blond hairdo from the centuries-old Spike, and not the other way around…
More vampire TV shows and movies followed, most of which were aimed at the teen/young-adult market. One of these was “The Vampire Diaries” (2009-2017), the pilot of which I first saw at San Diego Comic Con (with the cast in attendance), and I was not terribly impressed, to be honest. More recently, there was Stephanie Meyer’s inexplicably popular “Twilight” books (2005-2008), which also spawned a series of craptacularly-bad movies, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, both of whom would go on to do much better things. Compared to Rice’s works, Meyer’s pandering, cliched young adult stories feel more like copies of a copy of a bad Anne Rice-fanfic scrawled on a napkin at Denny’s. Arguably none of these stories would have existed today had Anne Rice not paved the way with her own angst-filled bloodsuckers back in 1976.
The late Anne Rice, like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Ursula K. Le Guin, was a pioneer and a critically important voice in horror/fantasy literature. Rice took the stale, centuries’ old vampiric myths and brought them into the current millennium, giving them new voice and fresh perspective. Rice’s vampires are the late author’s own passport to immortality, as her characters will be read, cherished and rediscovered for decades, perhaps centuries to come.
Anne Rice (1941-2021).
Where To Read/Watch.
Anne Rice’s books can usually be found at most booksellers, as they are still popular staples of the horror genre. If you can’t find them, try your local Barnes and Noble (barnesandnoble.com) or Amazon.com. The movie “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) can be purchased for streaming on HBOMax, via iTunes, PrimeVideo or GooglePlay, and can also be purchased on DVD/BluRay on Amazon.com. “Queen of the Damned” (2002) can be purchased or streamed on PrimeVideo, chillmovie.com or on DVD/BluRay via Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 800,000 (and well over 5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available as well). There is also the new Omicron variant to safeguard for as well, so please continue to mask up in crowded public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own.
Take care and be safe!