Oscar Movies: Interview With the Vampire (1994)–Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt

Neil Jordan’s “Interview With a Vampire,” arguably the most eagerly anticipated film of the year, is an artistic disappointment, and not just for miscasting the appealing movie star Tom Cruise in a role that is way beyond his limited range as an actor.

Despite Anne Rice’s recent change of heart, I’m afraid she was right the first time around, when she criticized in a much-publicized campaign the casting of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the two leading roles. Rice scathingly compared it to casting Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, noting that “Cruise is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.”

I doubt the sincerity of Rice’s recent recanting, in ads she has taken in Variety, N.Y. Times, and other papers, proclaiming Interview With a Vampire an excellent film adaptation of her 1970s popular novel and praising Cruise’s effective performance as Lestat, the evil Vampire.

Like the overproduced but disappointing Frankenstein, Interview arrives with so much excess baggage that it’s almost impossible to evaluate the film on its own merits. In addition to Rice’s initial rejection and subsequent recanting, there’s the trilogy of her books, “the Vampire Chronicles,” that have acquired millions of fans across the country.

The story starts in present-day San Francisco, as a young, nameless interviewer (Christian Slater, who replaced River Phoenix after his death) is questioning Louis (Brad Pitt), a strange man insisting he’s a vampire. Through Louis’ recollections–presented in long flashbacks–we learn of his initiation into the Vampires’ world, in New Orleans of the late eighteenth century. After losing his wife and child in a disaster, the depressed Louisiana plantation owner also loses his desire to live. Enter the alluring Vampire Lestat, who offers Louis a simple option: to die or live like him, as a force of evil.

Louis is depicted as an anguished, reluctant Vampire, one more moral than Lestat. Early on, he bristles at Lestat’s easy acceptance of murder and the latter’s total control over him. But one night, Louis bites the lovely neck of Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), an orphaned girl who lost her mother in an accident. To keep Louis in line, Lestat makes her a Vampire. In a bizarre, but poignant, critical parody of traditional nuclear families, the three set up a subversive household.

The relationships among the three Vampires should have been the dramatic core of the film–as it is in the book–for it touches on such controversial issues as hemophilia, pedophilia, homoeroticism. Indeed, despite all the horrendous acts that Lestat and Louis engage in, it’s the injustice of Claudia’s conversion into a Vampire that is the story’s tragic, haunting event. It’s practically a prison sentence, for as Claudia matures, she becomes a woman trapped in a child’s body.

Vampires don’t age and they don’t have sex, or any other normal human pleasure; they’re are the essence of what Rice has described as “polymorphous perverse.” And that’s where Jordan’s film goes wrong: Lestat and Louis’ relationship is hardly erotic, let alone homoerotic; the director doesn’t really exploit the disturbing potential of their relationship. Nor does Jordan succeed in conveying the creepy, unsettling interaction between the prepubescent Claudia and her two male companions.

This is particularly strange–and disappointing–from a director whose previous movies (The Miracle, The Crying Game) have focused on bizarre relationships. For all its interesting possibilities and distressing subtext, Interview is a tame horror film that is not very scary or thrilling. What ever happened to Jordan’s famed verve and nerve he displayed so forcefully in his other pictures

The biggest shortcoming of Interview, and the reason why it’s no more than intermittently effective or entertaining, is its lack of exciting dramatic center. The movie is too episodic, unfolding as a series tableaux vivants that span two hundred years. Every once in a while, a campy line humor pops up, but it comes out of nowhere. It also smacks of commercial considerations, the urge to make the story both more palatable and hip for younger audiences.

There are also problems with the picture’s pacing, which is not modulated. The first half of the film is quite gripping, but the plot reaches its climax in Paris, in the marvelous sequences of the Theatre des Vampires. Yet Jordan follows these scenes with another 100 years of less spectacular events. The ending, however, is rather gimmicky and delivers a strong punch (it also paves the way for a sequel).

Tom Cruise is a hard working but not particularly diverse actor. Though he doesn’t embarrass himself here, there’s no doubt he’s still miscast as Lestat. (The original choice was the elegant Britisher Daniel Day Lewis, who would have been great). To be fair, Cruise has some good moments, but he lacks the diabolic, sinister charisma that the role calls for. While Cruise’s Lestat is the story’s dynamic center, he is missing from the action for most of the second half, which is for the better. In the book, Lestat’s spirit continues to haunt Louis–and the audience–even when he’s not around.

Brad Pitt somehow fares better, though he too isn’t perfect. Pitt’s best work has been in supporting roles (Thelma & Louise, A River Runs Through It), and the lack of gravity in his performance becomes troubling, especially in the second half, when he’s dominating the story. Like Cruise, Pitt seems to be at unease wearing a period drag.

Of the three actors, child-actress Kirsten Dunst gives the most spectacular performance in a rather complex part. Yet there’s no doubt that the story would have been much creepier if she had been 5, as in the book. Ironically, the 12-year-old Dunst shows more power than either Cruise or Pitt in conveying the frustrations of a Vampire who’s neither a child nor a grown-up.

Like Kenneth Branagh in Frankenstein, Neil Jordan seems to be lost amidst the lush cinematography of Oscar-winner Philippe Rousselot and gorgeous production design of Dante Ferretti. Interview With a Vampire is a big, sprawling, visually ravishing movie, but it’s also impersonal. It’s the first Jordan film for which he receives no writing credit, which may explain some of the problems.

If you want to see a more elegant and scary horror film directed by Jordan, I recommend that you rent his 1984 film, “The Company of Wolves.”

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Dante Ferretti; Francesca Lo Schiavo
Original Score: Elliot Goldenthal

Oscar Context

The winners in those categories were Art Direction for the period piece, “The Madness of King George,” which was also nominated for Best Picture, and Hans Zimmer for his score of Disney’s animated feature, “The Lion King.”