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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.

Plot: young tech employee meets a girl who might, or might not, be a cyborg.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, wrote English writer Charles Caleb Colton famously in 1820. It’s an old adage that rings true across various spectrums of the art world but none illustrates it better than cinema. Entire national cotton industries were spawned to accomodate imitations of the latest cinematic trends. Italy dominated the market for such ventures from, say, the sixies through eighties – but the rest of Meditterranean Europe (especially Spain) and the Philippines were never close behind. The Far East has a long cinematic tradition of the sometimes quite bizarre. In recent years China has emerged as number one in imitating popular movies from the world over on a fraction of the budget and without any of the talent. The Temptation of the Maid (released regionally as 超能萌女友 or Super Cute Girlfriend and The AI Housemaid, depending on your preference) is a Chinese reimagining and partial merging of two popular Japanese movies from a decade prior. As always with these kind of ventures it behoofs one to see the originals prior to this tolerable derivation.

Whenever a movie reaches a certain point of cultural – or critical mass regional imitations are bound to follow. The Temptation of the Maid (or alternatively The AI Housemaid, as it will be referred to hereafter) from director Xu Zeyu is not only a loose remake of Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but attempts to tug on the heart strings very much in the way of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009) and even has Zhang Lijun dressing up as a French chambermaid just like Bae Doo-na did in the earlier movie. The AI Housemaid fares as well as you’d expect under what are far from optimal circumstances, most of which can be leveled at the screenplay from Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao as well as this being a Q1Q2 production. Both men understand what made Jae-young Kwak’s original work so well yet their screenplay blunders in some pretty crucial areas. A few details have been changed around to hide the obvious thievery and the men even stumble onto a good idea occassionally either intentionally or by mistake. Suffice to say The AI Housemaid never come close to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) in terms of emotional resonance, although it never stops trying.

In a surge of electricity white-hooded Xiao Xia (Zhang Lijun) appears in a parking garage in Shanghai. There she runs into an understandably confused Sam Jiaoshou (Cao Shengming) from who she picks up speech patterns and a simulacrum of humanity. In a department store in the city she runs into Cao Xiaoming (Chen Yuan) who is in the process of buying himself a present for his 32nd birthday. There Xiao Xia steals some expensive clothes, walks funnily in front of him and buys a cake at the bakery. The two end up Xiaoming’s favorite restaurant and, after an extended detour across the city, Cao realizes that Xiao Xia (or Little Summer) isn’t a ghost, a stray, or a beggar girl, and decides to take his new companion to his apartment. There he learns that she’s a cyborg sent to him by his senior aged, paralyzed future self (Fang Shialing) to look after his needs in the present time. At first he’s irked by Little Summer’s child-like antics but he eventually warms up her innocence and naivety. As an employee at a technology company Little Summer inspires him to invent a line of housemaid cyborgs, prompting Sam Jiaoshou to stage the world’s worst planned home invasion to obtain said designs. As always The AI Housemaid intervenes and diffuses the situation. Many years pass and Cao Xiaoming has fallen deeply in love with Little Summer. He realizes that The AI Housemaid has changed his destiny several times by just being with him.

At the forefront of Chinese cinema in the past several years have been the Film Bureau and Q1Q2. Both have been flooding the Internet with some of the cheapest (and, occasionally, good) productions across a variety of genres. Whereas the Film Bureau usually helms moderately budgeted genre pieces Q1Q2 always manages to do whatever the Film Bureau does far quicker, cheaper and with considerably less star-power. Before anything else The AI Housemaid is a largely faithful Mainland China remake of the Japanese movie My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) from a decade before. For the most part The AI Housemaid is able to work around its more obvious budgetary limitations (there is no grand disaster set to happen, special effect shots are kept to a minimum as is Zhang Lijun’s wardrobe, and choreography-centric action are fazed out almost entirely). What keeps The AI Housemaid from reaching its full potential is a widely uneven screenplay that checks all the boxes for a remake, occasionally wanders into a good idea but most of the time staggers around with no sense of direction. The pre-credit opening montage gives the impression that The AI Housemaid will be going for Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) production design but no such thing will be forthcoming.

My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was Jae-young Kwak’s love note to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The AI Housemaid ends up imitating several of the Terminator inspired scenes from the original but apparently has no idea why they were there in the first place. Most of the key scenes have some kind of equivalent in The AI Housemaid and where the screenplay deviates from the Japanese original is typically where it falls short too. The only thing that the screenplay by Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao actually improves upon is by giving the cyborg a name and making her the viewpoint character. The AI Housemaid is, first and foremost, the story of Little Summer whereas My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was ostensibly told from Jiro’s perspective. Chen Yuan is scruffy and likeable enough but he’s no Keisuke Koide. Not even by a long shot. In her part news anchor Zhang Lijun (张丽君) is adorable enough but Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Ada Liu Yan, Patricia Hu, Liu Zhimin, or Ni Ni (neither of whom this production could possibly afford) would’ve been a far better fit for the part that Haruka Ayase played. Despite that one major improvement, The AI Housemaid never becomes more than the sum of its various borrowed parts.

The initial meet-cute on the streets is virtually identical and it even copies the same joke (Cao Xiaoming crashes into a lamppost), like Haruka Ayase in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) Zhang Lijun too zaps someone in the mall (not with her eyes, but with her fingertips), and the obligatory dance scene is rather improvised compared to the “do the robot” dance scene in the original. In The AI Housemaid it’s Lijun who gorges on spaghetti the way Keisuke Koide did in the original and the inciting incident is a home invasion instead of a restaurant shooting. Both cyborg girls project a holographic recording from their future masters out of their eyes but with Little Summer there’s no dramatic build-up to the third act resolution. That Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao don’t grasp the original’s far more subtleler moments is abundantly clear through out. There’s no equivalent to the “thumbs up” scene, there’s no pet named Raoul (or a counterpart for such), and Cao Xiaoming doesn’t travel back to his hometown either. One of the most genuinely touching moments in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) is when Jiro breaks up with Cyborg She in a confused, drunken stupor and immediately regrets his decision afterwards. When the Tokyo earthquake hits and the two confess their feelings for each other it offers a profoundly moving emotional resolution to the second act conflict. The AI Housemaid blunders most catastrophically by not setting up any meaningful conflict or break-up in whichever form and thus there’s no dramatic tension. When Cao Xiaoming and Little Summer do get together in the third act it irrevocably rings hollow as neither has experienced any sort of growth or arc.

In recent years there has been a considerable influx of mostly Chinese imitations. Whether it’s the more conceptually ambitious and action-oriented Super Robot Girl (2015) or more plain comedic exercises as Jing Wong’s iGirl (2016) (with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, Connie Man Hoi-Ling, and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi), Heavenly Machine Maid (2017) (with Liu Zhimin), the Mainland China iGirl (2017), or Be Careful! Single Pain (2018) (with Wu Hao) they all draw heavily from either Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) or Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009). More often than not they seem hellbent on combining the two to varying levels of success. What they all invariably have in common is that sooner or later one or more of the cyborg girls will end up in a French chambermaid costume. Another thing these imitations all have in common is a tendency to be emaciated in terms of plot and feature tubby, blackrimmed glasses wearing socially handicapped nerd types in need of a confidence boost. The cycle of otaku fantasy fulfillment movies aren’t all that surprising in light of China’s fairly recent adoption of Japanese culture and entertainment. The problem of socially withdrawn youths or hikikomori seems to be manifesting in China as well. That domestic cinema would pick up on that shift seems only natural and logical. A decade-plus removed from the original it’s puzzling that there has been neither an American or Bollywood remake at this point, especially in light of the original My Sassy Girl (2001).

That there was going to be a world of difference between The AI Housemaid and My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was all but expected given the decade between both. Given the modesty of its budget it never was going to be able to compete with the original and its muddy screenplay only serves to make matters worse. Had this been given the big budget remake treatment then perhaps it would have fared better. Most remakes try to recreate the magic from the original without always grasping what exactly inspired said magic in the first place. The AI Housemaid is no different in that regard. It slavishly recreates many scenes from My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but hardly, if ever, understands why they worked so well in the original. Vanilla Sky (2001) was a soulless Hollywoodization of the Spanish fantastique Open Your Eyes (1997), the American The Ring (2002) and The Eye (2008) barely understood why Ringu (1998) and The Eye (2002) worked so well within their respective cultural confines. After all China’s CCTV6 remade National Treasure (2004) as The Empire Symbol (2013). Remakes that improve upon the original are far and few to begin with. The AI Housemaid is a valiant attempt to interpret a Japanese/Korean movie for a Mainland China audience and, to a certain degree, it works as intended. More importantly, however, is that The AI Housemaid never resonates quite in the same way as Jae-young Kwak’s original work from whence it was derived. As hard as it might try The AI Housemaid is not the sprawling romance it probably ought have been – and that’s a pity because Chinese culture is usually better attuned to this sort of thing.