Anne Rice (1941-2021) achieved immortality by reimagining the vampire tale…

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.

1931’s “Dracula”; one of the famed Universal series of monster movies that made Bela Lugosi an international star.

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.

Even later interpretations of Dracula, including 1972’s blaxploitation horror film “Blacula” retained many of the old conventions.

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…

Fresh Blood.

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.

Tom Cruise’s controversial casting as the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt turned some of hardcore Rice fans off.

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.

The combined star power of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and a magnificent performance by then-child actor Kirsten Dunst, made the film a box hit, raking in over $220 million (from a $60 million budget).

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.

Stan and Anne Rice pose with their daughter Michele, who died of leukemia in 1972, a month shy of her 6th birthday.

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.

Turning pain into art, Rice would reimagine her own late daughter Michele as a young vampire in the form of Claudia.

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.

2002’s “Queen of the Damned” garnered some tragic publicity when star Aaliyah (Aaliyah Dana Haughton) died in a plane crash at age 22, just before the movie’s planned opening in late 2001, forcing a later premiere.

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.

Stuart Townsend (“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) gave a very different interpretation of Lestat, this time as a rock god–something straight from Rice’s own novel, “The Vampire Lestat” (1985).

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.

The Vampire Chronicles, along with the Mayfair Witches and other novels of hers, reenergized the gothic horror genre.

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.

Legacy.

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.

The Buffyverse characters of Angel and Spike, seen here in the spinoff “Angel” (1999-2003) are right out of Anne Rice.

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…

The CW’s “Vampire Diaries” (2009-2017) arguably wouldn’t exist without the resurgence in the genre from Anne Rice.

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!

Images: Warner Bros., CW, FaceBook, Author, Various

8 Comments Add yours

  1. firemandk says:

    As a native of Santa Carla ( Santa Cruz) where we have always had “all the damn vampires”, I was right there as a freshman in high school inline to buy “Interview with the Vampire”….wonderful read, I read the first three books and probably should read them all at some point. Have always been a “Dracula” fan , when they filmed “Lost Boys” here we were really pests watching the filming but did not make it into the film as quite a few folks I know did ….. You mentioned William Marshall and “Blackula”, he pops up in one of my all time favorite “Alfred Hitchcock episodes “The Jar” , along with what seems like half of “Mayberry” and a little of “The Dukes of Hazard”…. I always enjoy reading your posts, this was a nice tribute to Anne. It is sad that Anne Rice has passed, her literary legacy will live forever.

    1. First, thanks so much for the kind words, FiremanDK! Much appreciated.
      And yes, William Marshall was a force of nature; very much missed as well.

      I wish I’d read “Interview with the Vampire” before I saw the movie, but one experience only enhanced the other, really. As for living in “Santa Carla” (haha), I don’t blame you a bit for wanting to take a peek at the filming of “The Lost Boys”; pretty exciting!

      Anne Rice was a literary giant, and my words are only from a place of humble fandom to her amazing body of work. In all the ways that matter, she truly did achieve immortality, didn’t she?

  2. I was a HUGE fan of Anne Rice back in the day and devoured all of her books. I recently donated all of my Anne Rice books to used book stores, but I will never forget her and her stories.

    1. I’m a middle-aged geek, too, by the way, lol.

      1. In that case, I sincerely hope you enjoy my site. Thanks so much for reading!

    2. You are a generous soul, Tina! I’m a greedy old miser with my books (haha!).

      1. They were taking up a lot of space and I needed to do a purge, lol. Now my Star Wars collection is starting to take up space!

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