Plot: vampire recounts his life, losses and regrets over the centuries.
There’s no contesting that the nineties were a trying time for horror at large. The genre had been reduced to broad comedy, toyed with science fiction with things like The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Brainscan (1994) and was at its lowest when made-for-television thrillers such as Mikey (1992) were passed off as the genuine thing. While Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) didn’t exactly usher in a new decade of gothic horror revivalism, it was Jan de Bont’s 1999 redundant remake of The Haunting (1963) that effectively killed the subgenre amidst the deluge of self-reflexive Scream (1996) imitations and pretenders. Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (just Interview with the Vampire hereafter) answers the question what an Andy Milligan or Jean Rollin gothic horror and vampire epic would look like on a mega-budget with an all-star cast and money to burn. Sadly, it’s also terminally unscary and, this being Hollywood, repelled by the naked female form.
Seeing the innate potential of the Anne Rice novel Paramount Pictures optioned the rights in April 1976, a full month before Interview with the Vampire was to see publication. As early as 1978 word broke of a big screen adaptation with either Rutger Hauer, Jon Voight or Julian Sands and Alain Delon in the roles of Lestat and Louis, respectively and John Boorman attached to direct. As these things tend to go, the project spent the next decade-plus languishing in development hell. Actors aged in and out of their intended roles, directors and screenwriters came and went and the project was on the fast track to nowhere. At one point a gender-swapped script with Cher and Anjelica Huston attached to star was considered. As contracts weren’t renewed the rights reverted to Lorimar, and Warner Bros before finally being obtained by producer David Geffen from The Geffen Film Company. It was the box office success of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that prompted Geffen to give Interview with the Vampire a big budget Hollywood treatment allotting it a lush $60 million, an ensemble cast of present and future superstars and a promising Irish director. After 18 years of being shopped around Hollywood Interview with the Vampire was finally here.
Neil Jordan was the force behind the Little Red Riding Hood fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984), he had worked with Irish rock band U2 as he filmed the music video for 'Red Hill Mining Town’ from the band’s landmark 1987 album "The Joshua Tree" and closed the eighties with the comedy We're No Angels (1989). In between his award-winning The Crying Game (1992) and the historical biopic Michael Collins (1996) he was lured to Hollywood for Interview with the Vampire. Jordan would spent the following years distancing himself from horror with, among others, the romance The End of the Affair (1999) and the Showtime series The Borgias (2011-2013). Almost twenty years later he would return to the vampire horror subgenre with Byzantium (2012) where Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton sprouted fangs. Interview with the Vampire proved lucrative, collecting a respectable $223.7 million combined at the domestic and international box office. Producers were looking to adapt the surrounding chapters of the The Vampire Chronicles series, namely The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. Instead of two stand-alone adaptations the two were clumsily streamlined into one resulting in the often delayed and monstrosity of a sequel Queen of the Damned (2002) with Stuart Townsend and late r&b singer Aaliyah. Understandably, no more The Vampire Chronicles episodes were adapted in the aftermath.
Overzealous young journalist Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) has been chasing what he believes to be his latest scoop. For that reason he has been shadowing his latest subject for sometime on the streets of New Orleans. When his subject enters a rowhouse and leaves the door unlocked Malloy sees his chance and follows him inside. For whatever reason Daniel has been beguiled by this in no way interesting looking young man and is deadset on interviewing him. He’s in luck as his well-tailored and pallid subject is more than willing and happy to tell his story. He hopes that Malloy’s publication will serve as a cautionary tale to others. Daniel breaks out his tapes and recorder from his duffel bag and encourages the man to introduce himself as he starts recording.
The man introduces himself as Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), a wealthy indigo plantation owner 1791 Spanish Louisana who emigrated to New World as part of the Louisana Purchase. Ever since losing his wife and unborn child de Pointe du Lac descended into a cynical and self-destructive downward spiral of gambling, whoring, and drinking heavily inciting brawls in taverns longing for the sweet release of death, either by his own hand or by another’s. On one of his nightly escapades he’s observed by member of the bourgeoisie Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise). Sensing Louis’ desperation and dissatisfaction with mortal life Lestat offers de Pointe du Lac a life free of suffering, frailty and illness. Louis accepts the invitation but comes to regret his decision once the initial euphoria has worn off. De Lioncourt is embodiment of supreme vampyric evil and a paragon of vanity. He’s a suave and fashion-conscious apex predator with a sociopathic streak that sees mortals as mere chattel to be hunted. Louis is far more compassionate instead deciding to drink the blood of animals to sustain his sanguinary needs. In his plantation house the duo’s every need and want is looked after by maid Yvette (Thandiwe Newton, as Thandie Newton) and the houseslaves. Their eccentric, nocturnal lifestyle frightens the superstitious slaves eventually forcing the two to vacate the premises once Louis sets it alight in a moment of desperation.
In a plague-ridden section of the city Louis finds orphan girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) among the lifeless bodies of her parents. Seeing a potential mate for Louis Lestat sets his designs on Claudia and decides to turn her. The undead trio find refuge in an opulent mansion and resume their vampiric ways. Lestat initiates Claudia in the art of murder and she quickly becomes the most misanthropic and bloodthirsty of the three. As thirty years pass Claudia grows increasingly resentful of Louis and Lestat for trapping her growing mind into a never changing prepubescent body. He orders Lestat to make her a companion which he lovingly obliges to turning Madeleine (Domiziana Giordano). Claudia’s destestation leads her to betray Lestat, fatally poisoning him with a dose of laudanum, slit his throat, and dumping his exsanguinated body in the nearest swamp. The two immediately take to planning a trip through Europe in search of other vampires. On the eve of their departure by ship a harried Lestat returns and attacks them necessitating Louis to torch him in self-defense.
The two depart for Europe where they after several decades of drifting end up in the court of Spanish vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas). Armand further mentors Louis in the ways of the undead where they hide in plain sight of mortal Parisians in his Théâtre des Vampires where his undead minions perform Grand Guignol-style stage theatrics (“vampires pretending to be human pretending to be vampires” Louis astutely observes). Santiago (Stephen Rea) reads Louis’ mind and realizes his complicity in Claudia’s murder attempt on Lestat, a capital crime against the vampire moral code. Claudia and Madeleine are killed by sunlight and in revenge Louis torches the theater incinerating everyone inside. Ravaged by loss in the years that follow Louis explores the world alone eventually returning to New Orleans in 1988. There he finds a world-wary and tired Lestat. As his story draws to an end has Malloy learned from his interview with the vampire?
Boasting Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst with Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater and Thandiwe Newton in supporting slots Interview with the Vampire was blessed with an ensemble cast of sorts. Tom Cruise had formally debuted in Franco Zeffirelli's Endless Love (1981) and the only real skeleton in his closet was the raunchy teen sex comedy Losin' It (1982) (which, all things considered, wasn’t much of a skeleton as it was directed by Roger Corman protegé Curtis Hanson). He had a string of hits to his name with Risky Business (1983), Legend (1985), Top Gun (1986), Rain Man (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), and The Firm (1993). Cruise had worked with some of the best and brightest in the business, including (but not limited to) Martin Scorsese, Ridley and Tony Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Ron Howard, and Sydney Pollack. In other words, by 1994 Cruise was a legitimate superstar with all the attendant clout and influence that brought. He was able to shape whatever project he desired to his personal preferences. Interview with the Vampire is historically the first time Cruise lowered himself to horror and played what nominally could be called a villain. It wouldn’t be until Collateral (2004) a decade hence where he would play one again. In between The Firm (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) this must have been a fun little diversion.
For Brad Pitt this was his first foray into horror since his guest spot on an episode of Freddy's Nightmares (1989) and the tame slasher Cutting Class (1989). Pitt had blindly agreed on the part without fully realizing what it entailed. When he realized his role was mostly passive and expositionary he, understandably, wanted to renege on his contract. As it dawned on him that backing out would cost him 40 million he honored his obligations by giving it his absolute minimum. Kirsten Dunst landed her first big break voicing Kiki in the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). She somehow escaped unscathed from the Brian De Palma box office bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and this was pretty much her only foray into horror. From there Dunst appeared in Little Women (1994) and Jumanji (1995) and in 1996-97 she had a 6-episode arc in ER (1994-2009). At the dawn of the new millennium she became Sofia Coppola’s muse and was one of the major players in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007).
Antonio Banderas and Thandiwe Newton were up-and-coming in Hollywood. Banderas rose to fame in his native Spain thanks to his work with Pedro Almodóvar. Newton was a British actress of Zimbabwean descent that had a few small indies to her name and Interview with the Vampire was to be her first big budget production. Cruise and Newton would reunite six years later in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Cruise, Pitt, and Banderas all give memorable performances for mostly the wrong reasons. Cruise revels in playing the reptilian predator, Pitt is pretty much a by-stander in his own story and as a joyless, sexless wretch Banderas is the antithesis of kink-male he played for Almodóvar. Dunst, at the tender age of 12, outplays all three of her more experienced peers. Newton for her part is stuck in a mostly decorative part but thankfully she would land better roles later.
For a movie so singularly concerned with beautiful people living an immortally condemned life of hedonism and debauchery Interview with the Vampire effortlessly fails to be sexy at any point. Sure, the gay overtones of the novel have been dialed down considerably but even from a heteronormative standpoint this is a pretty sexless affair. Those hoping for a good scare or two will be left with their hunger too because it never grows tense either. With production design by Dante Ferreti it oozes all the atmosphere you could possibly want from this sort of thing, but sensual it is not. In typical Hollywood fashion Interview with the Vampire avoids nudity for the most part. Louis’ philandering whoremonger segment is surprisingly free of sleaze and at the Théâtre des Vampires what little nudity there is falls on the shoulders of no-name extras.
True to the novel Interview with the Vampire has to contort itself into some pretty amusing contrivances to excuse Louis’ penchant for prolonging his suffering; mortal, undead, or otherwise. For someone so eager to die he sure finds excuse after convenient excuse to continue on living and sulking every step of the way. On a similar note do Claudia and him systematically fail to exterminate Lestat, the closest this thing has for an antagonist. Likewise does Louis have the nasty habit of torching his domiciles whenever things don’t go his way. If one was feeling charitable you could sort of see the incineration of the vampires at the Théâtre des Vampires in Paris that has Louis wielding a scythe as a nod to Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1979), although it’s doubtful either Rice or Jordan were familiar with French fringe and cult cinema of decades past. Whatever the case as gothic horror Interview with the Vampire lacks both the scares and sensuality the subgenre is usually known and loved for. It lacks it direly.
As with anything nothing ever happens in a vacuum and everything has an ancestor. The mopey, self-pitying sadboi vampire isn’t remotely a modern invention by any stretch of the imagination. As an archetypical ur-character it has several decades worth of cinematic precedent and tradition. In continental European and Latin American pulp cinema early examples include Italian kitsch as The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and the sensually brooding Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962). Argentina’s kink-horror breastacular Blood Of the Virgins (1967) as well as the underestimated Paul Naschy romp Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). Before the not-so-epic Twilight (2008-2012) saga there was Interview with the Vampire and that would’ve never been greenlit if it wasn’t for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that other throwback to gothic horror of yore doing big at the international box office. Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s horror epic never hid its kitschy inspirations Interview with the Vampire is deadly (and fatally) serious at all times. Those hoping that this would turn into a heteronormative and sanitized Vampyres (1974) will be sorely disappointed. There’s nothing that Hollywood can’t defang and when you defang a vampire don’t expect some, or a lot, of bite.