Kristi Mitsuda on Interview with the Vampire

Though I’ve never been predisposed towards the elaborate Gothicism favored by Anne Rice, I became enamored of her Vampire Chronicles in high school. In retrospect it seems appropriate: Her vision of vampiric angst and lust offers striking resonances with anxieties of a more mundane teenage variety. I read the first of the series in the immediate wake of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, during which time the title was often bandied about in comparison. Though almost universally reviled, I nonetheless appreciated Francis Ford Coppola’s epic for its rendering of darkly incoherent desires later to be more effectively tapped in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire.

Like every other fan, I was incensed when I heard of the casting of the frattish Tom Cruise as the blondly brash Lestat, a choice so discordant Rice herself publicly condemned it. Looking back now it seems evident that Cruise’s trademark cockiness would recommend him to the rock-star role (literally—in The Vampire Lestat, the second in the Chronicles, he becomes one), and even Rice later recanted her initial misgivings. And initially I felt Brad Pitt could more effectively play Lestat on the basis of a split second in Kalifornia during which a glint in his eyes decisively signals an emotional crossover from lover to killer—yet he would instead be playing the confessional Louis.

Protective of what I felt to be the novel’s inherent unadaptability (a cliché, I know) and annoyed by the casting, I expected to thoroughly despise Jordan’s opus. And, too, that sense of secret possession to which the ardent admirer clings, despite being one among millions, feeds into an unjustified sense of loss at the overexposure—you always want to feel that something you hold closely is solely yours and scorn those who may arrive at it through more mass-market means (though the book was, admittedly, as mass-market as it gets). After all, Rice’s merging of the old world with the new—a modern-day reporter interviewing a vampire born in the 1700s…what the hell?—creates some mighty difficult juxtapositions to pull off within the novel itself (it took a full 100 pages of incredulous reading before I began falling for her world), a feat in suspension of disbelief which would be doubly difficult to bring about in visual terms more bindingly concrete than the imaginary expansiveness possible with words alone. How does one make such a preposterous set-up work? To my surprised delight, Jordan managed to turn out a lively rendition which pleased the fickle die hard fan base, among others. Rewatching it for the first time since that theatrical impression over ten years ago, I found myself nervous—how would such a strange conglomeration hold up?

While, like Cruise, Irish filmmaker Jordan initially appeared an odd choice to direct the much-ballyhooed, star-studded studio movie, he also, in hindsight, seems a perfect match for the material. With The Crying Game. and recently released Breakfast on Pluto, he demonstrates a penchant for sympathetic portrayals of the sexually demonized of society, and, as such, Interview with the Vampire seems less an anomaly in a somewhat anomalous career. Jordan heartily embraces the democratic spirit of lustfulness the vampires assume and affords the blood exchange the hefty sexual correlations attendant. He represents the craving not simply as hunger, but overwhelming and aching desire (a concern taken to logical extremes by Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day, in which the vampiric urge to ravage is inextricably linked to sexual ardor).

Jordan uses these metaphorical properties and leaves intact the blatant homoeroticism of Rice’s writing; his matter-of-fact unquestioning of sexual difference might be considered a distinguishing hallmark. The image of Louis fervently sucking the blood dripping from Lestat’s wrist, and Cruise’s expression of near-orgasmic pleasure/pain when he does so encapsulates this unblinking acceptance. That the two male vampires form a couple, even choosing to “father” a child (an astonishing 11-year- old Kirsten Dunst as Claudia) when their relationship hits a rough patch, is undeniable; that the word “companion” often gets thrown around—a euphemism explicitly associated with gay relationships—compounds it. And this makes Interview with the Vampire’s success as mainstream entertainment all the more heady and profound.

The heart of Jordan’s and Rice’s conception, though, lies in the melancholia of interviewee Louis; in him we’re meant to locate our sympathies as he unspools a long lamentation. His existential woes are no different than the human kind (other than the moral miseries accompanying the dictates of blood-sucking, that is—he constantly inquires after the origins of his species and the meaning of life—and by casting the cold-blooded vampire in this strangely warm light, Interview with the Vampire becomes the revisionist monster myth it wants to be. Unfortunately, herein lies a huge liability: Pitt’s performance as Louis. The stillborn delivery of his lines, meant to evoke a world-weary suffering, instead projects a dull woodenness. It places him at a remove from us when he should be our main point of identification. Though I’d previously favored the humbler, introspective character to the flashiness of Lestat, as incarnated by these particular actors I came to understand why so many others preferred the zealously indulgent latter ­ mild-mannered Louis, as embodied by Pitt, is a raging bore. Which is why, when Lestat listens to a playback of his audio-recorded interview and exasperatingly cries, “Oh Louis, Louis, still whining, Louis,” it begets no small amount of mirth.

If there’s anything Americans hold sacred, it’s the dignity of death—and Interview with the Vampire shatters the quiet aura of respect surrounding it by constantly incorporating corporeality into its jokes, whether it’s Lestat merrily dancing with the body of Claudia’s dead mother or else his scolding the girl for her lack of restraint as she prematurely feeds on her dressmaker. Part of the film’s success owes thanks to Rice’s infusion of morbid humor into her screenplay, more than can be found in the pathos-soaked source material. In a method fraught with dangers, but one that works well here, the film version cannily heads off unintentional laughter by poking self-conscious fun at itself before anyone else can—with a crass humor underlined by a sinister streak later to reach its apotheosis in The Butcher Boy. The hybrid blend of lowbrow humor with high production values imbues the feature with an interestingly subversive thrust unique to Jordan. Sure, there remain risible moments meant to be taken seriously and someone should’ve gotten rid of Antonio Banderas’s hideous wig, but on the whole Interview with the Vampire functions the way it’s supposed to—as a fantastical corollary to the human experience of finding ways to deal with rapidly changing times, and as damn good entertainment.