INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE

Dies Irae, Dies Doloris …

“Libera me, Domine, de vitae aeterna” – “Free me, Lord, from eternal life”: If a movie begins with a choir and a boy soprano singing these words, in a requiem’s style and overlaying the camera’s sweeping move over nightly San Francisco bay, zooming in on a Victorian building’s top-floor window after having followed the life on the street below like a hunter follows its prey – if a movie begins like this, you know you’re not looking at your average flick, whatever its subject. (And if the first thing you catch is the Latin phrase’s grammatical mistake, this is probably not your kind of movie to begin with).

Much-discussed even before its release, due not least to Anne Rice’s temporary withdrawal of support and her no less sensational subsequent 180-degree turn, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the Vampire Chronicles‘ first part, based on Rice’s own screenplay, is a sumptuous production awash in luminous colors, magnificent period décor and costumes, rich fabrics, heavy crystal, elegant silverware and gallons of deeply scarlet blood, supremely photographed by Phillippe Rousselot, with a constant undercurrent of sensuality and seduction; an audiovisual orgy substantiated by one of recent film history’s most ingenious scores (by Elliot Goldenthal). Although the book only gained notoriety after the publication of its sequel The Vampire Lestat – followed in short order by the Chronicles‘ third installment, The Queen of the Damned –, by the time this movie was produced, Rice had acquired a large and loyal fan base, who would have been ready to tear it to shreds had it failed to meet their expectations. That this was not unanimously the case is in and of itself testimony to Neil Jordan’s considerable achievement (only underscored by the botched 2002 realization of Queen of the Damned). Sure, some decry the plot changes vis-à-vis the novel and the fact that some of the protagonists (particularly Louis and Armand) look different from Rice’s description. But others have embraced the movie wholeheartedly; praising it for remaining faithful to the fundamentalities of Rice’s story and for its production values as such. I find myself firmly in the latter corner; indeed, in some respects I consider this one of the rare movies that are superior to their literary originals – primarily because the story’s two main characters, Louis and Lestat, gain considerably in stature and complexity as compared to Rice’s book.

While both film and novel are narrated by Louis (Brad Pitt), giving an interview to a reporter (Christian Slater) in the hope of achieving some minimal atonement for 200 years of sin and guilt, and while Lestat (Tom Cruise) appears on screen barely half the movie’s total running time, Lestat is much more of a central character than in Rice’s novel; and vastly more interesting. For Anne Rice’s Lestat only comes into his own in the Chronicles‘ second part, which is named for him and where we truly learn to appreciate him as the vampire world’s aristocratic, arrogant, wicked, intelligent and unscrupulous “brat prince,” who although completely lacking regret for any of his actions nevertheless shows occasional glimpses of caring, even if he would never admit thereto. This, however, is exactly the movie’s Lestat; not the comparatively uninformed and, all things considered, even somewhat brutish creature of Rice’s first novel. It is no small feat on Tom Cruise’s part to have accomplished this; and in my mind his portrayal has completely eclipsed the character’s original conception, which was reportedly based on Rutger Hauer’s Captain Navarre in Ladyhawke.

Similarly, while every bit as guilt-ridden as the character created by Anne Rice , Brad Pitt’s Louis regains more inner strength – and more quickly so – than the narrator of Rice’s book, rendering him more of an even foil for Lestat, and equally lending greater credibility to his initial selection as Lestat’s companion, as well as to his actions to ensure his and Claudia’s escape to Europe, and his later decision not to stay with Armand. (Indeed, Louis’s and Armand’s separation after the burning of the Theatre of the Vampires makes perfect sense in the movie’s context; it would have undercut both characters’, but especially Louis’s credibility had they gone on to share years of companionship, as they do in the book.)

Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia was not only this movie’s biggest discovery – not surprisingly, in an interview given a few years later and included on the movie’s DVD, Dunst called this “the most prominent role” of her career so far –: She, too, embodies the novel’s child vampire to absolute perfection; capturing her eternally childlike features as well as her Lolitaesque seductiveness and the ruthless killer hidden under her doll-like appearance. Doubtlessly furthest from the novel’s character is Antonio Banderas’s powerful and charismatic Armand: But while I do somewhat miss Rice’s auburn-haired “Botticelli angel,” I always had a problem imagining him as the leader of the Paris coven, in control even of the quicksilverish Santiago (marvelously portrayed by Stephen Rea in one of his most overtly theatrical performances). Here, too, the movie – if anything – gives the story greater credibility; although it’s admittedly hard to reconcile with parts of the Chronicles‘ later installments, particularly Armand’s own biography.

In interviews, Neil Jordan and Brad Pitt particularly have mentioned the emotional strain that this movie put on all its participants; due its almost exclusively nightly shooting schedule, and even more so because of its incessant exploration of guilt, damnation and, literally, hell on earth. Anne Rice’s vampires truly are the ultimate outsiders; no longer part of human society, they feed on it, can neither be harmed by sickness nor by methods the world has taken for granted ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which are in fact merely “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman,” as Louis explains, simultaneously amused and contemptuous) and are thus, if not killed by fire and/or beheading, condemned to walk the earth forever, without any hope of redemption. It is primarily this element which has given Rice’s novels their lasting appeal, and which is perfectly rendered in Jordan’s adaptation. I’m still not sure I’d ever want to meet them in person, though …

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Geffen Pictures (1994)
  • Director: Neil Jordan
  • Producers: David Geffen & Stephen Woolley
  • Screenplay: Anne Rice
  • Based on a novel by: Anne Rice
  • Music: Elliot Goldenthal
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Production Design: Dante Ferretti
Cast

Brad Pitt: Louis
Tom Cruise: Lestat
Christian Slater: Malloy
Kirsten Dunst: Claudia
Antonio Banderas: Armand
Stephen Rea: Santiago
Thandie Newton: Yvette
Indra Ové: New Orleans Whore
Helen McCrory: 2nd Whore
Roger Lloyd Pack: Piano Teacher
George Kelly: Dollmaker
Sara Stockbridge: Estelle
Domiziana Giordano: Madeleine
Louis Lewis-Smith: Mortal Boy

Major Awards and Honors

ASCAP Awards (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Elliot Goldenthal
BAFTA Awards (1995)
  • Best Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Best Production Design: Dante Ferretti

 

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