Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Before putting the disc in the machine, I asked my friend Wendigo whether time has passed Anne Rice by. I asked because it seemed to me that the trope identified with her, the vampire story told from the vampire's point of view, has been eclipsed by the avalanche of "urban fantasy" and "paranormal romance" that re-established the "victim," however willing she usually proves to be, as the point-of-view character. Wendigo answered that the change in narrative perspective is just a shift within a generic framework that remains Rice's handiwork. To the extent that urban fantasy and paranormal romance concerns itself with vampire societies and similar supernatural subgroups, they're still working with Rice's paradigm. To the extent that current authors' vampires aren't utterly accursed creatures, or not even undead, they remain, in essence, Rice's vampires. As far as Wendigo is concerned, there are two towers of vampire literature: Dracula and Interview with the Vampire. Twilight and its sequels piled on one another don't reach the historic heights of those seminal volumes. Stephanie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, the writers of White Wolf Games, etc., all labor in Rice's long shadow.

Anne Rice turned the vampire from a horror to a fantasy. It didn't happen all in one book; Wendigo says the change had been accomplished by the end of her third vampire novel, The Queen of the Damned. The first novel, published in 1976, hints at the social theme but remains focused on an individual vampire's guilt-trip of alienation and damnation. You can see some of Rice's own thoughts at the time in the interview clipping to your right. Louis' character arc makes Interview a horror novel in Wendigo's opinion. Rice adapted it for film, but by the time Neil Jordan directed, it 18 years after the novel appeared, the lavish production, more than anything else, turns Interview from the horror the novel was into the fantasy the sequel novels became.

Brad Pitt as the Interviewee, with the back of Christian Slater's head.

Rice inevitably has to telescope events to fit the novel into a two-hour screenplay, but she also foreshadows future stories and imports a resurgent Vampire Lestat from a later novel so that Tom Cruise can take a final bow and Jordan can give viewers a final scare. Strangely, for a film that I presume was meant to be a tentpole or a launch for a Lestat series of films, with or without Cruise, Rice and Jordan eliminate Lestat's role in ratting out Louis and Claudia to the villains of the Theatre des Vampires in Paris, which keeps Cruise off screen for nearly an hour. The entire Paris episode is streamlined (as is the larger European tour of the novel) and the romantic angle between Louis and Theater impresario Armand is downplayed to the point that it's unclear exactly why Claudia feels jealous. Leaving Lestat out of it undercuts the character's villainy. In the original novel, Wendigo tells me, he's a real hateful bastard who you'd want to see destroyed for the ways he torments Louis. In the film, he ceases to be a bad guy by a certain point simply by being absent, reappearing in 1988 as a pathetic character whom Louis has clearly outgrown -- though Wendigo informs me that the characters would enjoy a happy reunion later on.

Rice probably inherits some of her sensibility from Southern Gothic literature, which leads her characters in intimately strange directions with slaves (above) and one another (below).

Inevitably sacrificed is a lot of the novel's notorious homoeroticism. While Rice's vampires are sexually dead, they still experience intense romantic longing, and the feelings are mutual between Lestat and Louis, and later between Louis and Armand. It's less a case of Rice censoring herself, in Wendigo's opinion, than of Jordan failing to invest the appropriate scenes with the appropriate romanticism, and resistance from the lead actors. Brad Pitt, as Louis, seems especially determined not to have chemistry with either Cruise or Antonio Banderas as Armand. As we mentioned, where in the novel Louis is romantically obsessed with Armand for a time, in the film Pitt simply seems concerned with pumping Banderas for information.

Vampire dining tips from an indulgent Tom Cruise (above) and a dieting Brad Pitt (below)

Wendigo actually thinks that Pitt does a good job overall. He has a handle on Louis' personality, his sense of having fallen from grace and his perpetual regret. While casting Cruise as Lestat had caused controversy initially, Wendigo was as worried about Pitt, whom he then saw as a pretty boy whose primary attribute was his long hair. He was happily relieved once he saw the movie.

We didn't realize that Lestat's death scene was played by an animatronic robot until we saw the DVD documentary. Is that a tribute to Stan Winston or an insult to Tom Cruise?

Rice herself originally protested Cruise's casting, -- when she wrote the book, young Rutger Hauer was her ideal Lestat -- though she recanted quite publicly before the film came out. As Wendigo notes, Cruise is really playing the more rounded, developed Lestat of the Chronicles series as a whole than the villain of the first novel. As such, Wendigo thought he was at least as satisfactory as Pitt, though he notes that both men were really too old, already, for the characters they played. That aside, Wendigo was impressed by the range Cruise showed, especially in the 1988 scene in which Lestat is a frightened, confused wretch. I thought he made a good effort, too, though I felt he slipped into Tom Cruise-ness whenever the character had to become angry and shrill. Because I respect Brad Pitt now as a character actor and a comedian, I find him dull here in the straight role, and I find myself wondering strangely how the film would have worked with the lead roles reversed.

"Do you suffer from allergies? Or congestion? Then you shouldn't go about without a top on!"
The Nineteenth Century Nasonex Medicine Show de Paris

Perhaps surprisingly, Wendigo is most disappointed with Antonio Banderas as Armand. The character is supposed to be beautiful like the other vampires, and Banderas may have seemed more natural casting than either Pitt or Cruise. But Wendigo felt that he lost all his advantages once saddled with wig, red robe and heavy makeup. As an actor he did the best he could, but for Wendigo he's too palpably uncomfortable in his costumes to give the kind of performance the character requires.

For many viewers, the film was stolen from all of these actors by Kirsten Dunst as Claudia. She's really the central character of the central part of the film as the woman trapped in an immortal child's body exerts a femme-fatale influence over Louis while conspiring resentfully to destroy Lestat. For all that she's a more ruthless and vicious vampire than Louis, she's still his main reason to "live" rather than throw himself into a sewer and subsist on rats. The role made Dunst a star thanks to her uncanny performance, which sells a character concept that must have been nearly unimaginable to the little girl. I wouldn't be surprised if she's been driven to drink at least partially because people still tell her that this was the best work she's ever done. And it still might be.

Claudia's demise (above), and happier days (below).

Rice's genre innovation is fueled by a desire to get into the mind of a vampire, and its reflected in print by the vampires' desire to understand their own nature and history. Wendigo feels that losing a lot of Louis and Claudia's European tour also loses this aspect of longing for knowledge, self-understanding and community -- which would come to define post-Rice vampire fiction. This is one of several instances in which Jordan sacrifices theme and character development for spectacle and shock. Jordan was near the height of his powers at this time, with The Crying Game just behind him and Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy yet to come. He seemed like an inspired choice to direct Interview, but Wendigo feels that Jordan undercut the mood of the story with heavyhanded bits of black comedy, usually involving Claudia and her victims, and with scenes of pure silliness, as when Stephen Rea does a Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling of an overpass to impress Pitt. Indulgent bits like these are part of the film's overproduced quality. While it has to recreate the past, Wendigo thinks that the production goes overboard: too many extras, too much decoration, too much stardom. None of those things are necessary to get at the essence of Interview or any of Rice's novels -- though the lower-budgeted version of Queen of the Damned proved a botch for different reasons. While Wendigo still recognizes Jordan's Interview as a good film, he'd like to see someone try it again, as part of a complete Rice series, only with less money, fewer big names, but more integrity.


hobbyfan said...

I remember seeing this at the theatre when it first came out. Checked it out straight out of curiosity. I hadn't read the books, nor did I care to. Good, but not great, but, as we know, Kirsten Dunst has come a long way since then, as has everyone else. Cruise was put in because he was the biggest star at the time.

Seeing as how I'd suffered through "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as well, I just couldn't quite connect here.

dfordoom said...

I quite like Cruise in this one. I think he's rather underrated as an actor. I thought Pitt was awful. Overall it was not one of Neil Jordan's finest moments, which is surprising. It's the kind of thing he should have done extremely well. Very disappointing after his superb werewolf movie The Company of Wolves but then Angela Carter was a much more interesting writer than Rice so he had more to work with.

Samuel Wilson said...

d, Wendigo hasn't read Angela Carter, but he has seen Company of Wolves, and he agrees that it's a more complex film than the Interview movie. He still thinks Pitt was good, but he admits that the role doesn't take advantage of Pitt's strengths. Strange to say, but Louis the vampire isn't a quirky enough character for Pitt to do much with.

dfordoom said...

Angela Carter is a must-read for horror fans, especially her short stories The Lady of the House of Love and The Loves of Lady Purple. Wonderful fairy tale-influenced erotic horror.