Interview with the Vampire
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I will admit that I've never really gotten into Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles (or, for that matter, anything else she's ever written). I've tried, but I find her books have similar issues to the ones written by Laurel K. Hamilton: a lot of interesting ideas about fantasy creatures, but everything quickly devolves into sex and I get bored. I like sex in my stories as much as the next person, but there has to be a real, connective tissue to the plot line otherwise it's just pensive glances and sexual encounters and then you've just written prestige bodice rippers. Those aren't for me.
There is, however, quite the following for Rice's vampire stories, so much so that in 1994 Warner Bros. put together quite a prestige production to adapt the first novel in the series, Interview with the Vampire. They hired a killer cast -- including the big, A-list stars (for the time) of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Antonio Banderas -- all to make a very frilly (and yet still quite gory) vampire film. It was a decent success, and yet ever since various studios have struggled to adapt any of the further works. Even now, Rice herself has the rights to her characters back and she's' struggling to get her books into an adapted form.
I think it's because, honestly, the novels are pretty unadaptable. Only the first two -- Interview along with prequel/sequel The Vampire Lestat -- have proper narratives that tell self-contained stories, and they also have the least amount of pensive glances and bodice ripping. I'm not saying you can't make movies out of this kind of material (we were graced with adaptations of all three 50 Shades of Grey novels, after all), just that it's hard to create compelling material that will test well with audiences where there's very little solid meat to the stories (especially in the later novels).
Even in this first movie you can feel the struggles of the story against the conventions of film. We're introduced to Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire who's been "alive" for over two hundred years. Having seen a human following him for days, Louis eventually confronts the human, Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) and, when he realizes Molloy just wants to interview him, to find out about his life (this is Molloy's hobby, interviewing random people), Louis agrees. We then launch back 200 years to when Louis, grieving after the death of his wife and child, is met by Lestat (Tom Cruise), and Lestat gives him "a choice I was never given": die, or become a vampire. Louis agrees to the later choice, and then spends the next two hundred years regretting it.
The problem with Interview with the Vampire is that it's all largely formless. The plot of the story follow Louis and Lestat, along with eventually third in their party, the child-vampire Claudia, and they roam around the Americas and Europe, eating and bickering. There's no real villain for much of the run -- Lestat is sort of set as one, but the film is so in love with him he's more antihero than proper villain -- and then when a real villain is finally introduced it's just so the film can have a big climax before it wraps up its story. Then it rushes through the last 80 years or so in a montage. Ugh.
But, really, this rather loose plot only exacerbates an even bigger issue: Louis sucks. He's set as the kind and caring vampire, in opposition to Lestat who is carefree and will kill as he likes, spreading through a town like a plague, and this dynamic would work if Louis were at all interesting. The problem is that Brad Pitt is so bad in the role, so disengaged and unemotional, that it's hard to care about Louis at all. He wasn't great in the book, mind you (the same complaints could be levied against book Louis as they are here), but a good actor could elevate the role, emote Louis into a character you could care about. Pitt fails to do this.
No, the real star of the show is Cruise. As Lestat, Cruise's vampire is everything Pitt's Louis is not. He's engaging, he's energetic, he's interesting. Hell, for much of the film it seems like Cruise is the only one having any fun in this silly vampire movie. An early interaction where newly-turned Louis gets into a fight with Lestat, throwing the other vampire around, elicits only laughs from Lestat, and you can feel the joy from Cruise at it, too. He was having a grand old time being a vampire.
Plus, frankly, Tom Cruise is the best special effect in any film he's in. As has been noted about Cruise, he's willing to do any stunt pitched to him, becoming his own stunt man (in essence) for all his late period films. If you see Cruise's character doing something foolhardy, like hanging off a helicopter at a thousand feet up, you know it's Cruise doing it. That's how he rolls. So in sequences like him getting thrown around a forest, or being set on fire, the effects look so genuine because, I'm sure, Cruise was doing all of it. He's insane but it helps sell the mise en scene.
Hell, even the third lead of the film, the young Kirsten Dunst (twelve at the time of this film's release but looking much younger), is better in the film than Brad Pitt. Dunst's career, post-Interview is interesting because, for me, it feels like she's gotten worse at acting, not better, since playing Claudia. The young vampire is a force, a charismatic monster that can steal the screen even from Cruise, and the two together, as their vampire battle their wits, is magic. When one or the other is missing, and the film relies on Pitt to carry the scene, that's when it all gets less interesting. Maybe Dunst just hit her high mark with Claudia and nothing she's gotten since has been as good, or as interesting, but certainly this roles was when the actress was firing on all cylinders.
The film is a fine and solid adaptation of the novel. With a different actor in the lead role of Louis I think it would have even been phenomenal for what it was. That said, the film is hobbled by the story its adapting, and no amount of charismatic actors or great special effects can sell a straight adaptation of a anemic novel. Rice, frankly, is a terrible author -- she has interesting ideas, no doubt, but her prose leaves a lot to be desired -- and while the film does what it can there's only so far you can push this story before you have to change things too far for it to no longer be Interview with the Vampire. Rice had enough clout at the time to prevent massive changes, and this movie suffers from it. If only the novel could have been better...