Sunday 28 April 2024

Article - A quick look back at Interview with a Vampire

Neil Jordan’s film Interview with a Vampire has reached 30 years old this year. A discovery I made when I decided to watch my DVD copy to overcome the near-daily paralysis by film choice. Like so many of my peers, I have to forcibly stick with an immediate film choice or else be cursed to doomscroll for the rest of the evening. So camp, beautiful, depressed vampires abound! Interview with a Vampire is one of those films I always didn’t mind watching. However, narrative fragments fall out of my head despite multiple viewings. This time, I tried to reconcile my issues with a film I enjoyed most of despite holding it at arm's length.

Based on the 1976 Anne Rice novel of the same name, Interview with a Vampire tells the angsty story of Louis (Brad Pitt), a previously widowed slave owner who chronicles his centuries-long life as a creature of the undead. From his transformation by malicious vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) to his parental relationship with Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a young girl who has turned into a vampire through unfortunate circumstances.

Interview with A Vampire perhaps was infamously known for Anne Rice’s anger at Cruise being picked for the role of Lestat. Her anger quickly quelled after watching the performance by Cruise. A turn that is still considered as one of his most memorable. Lestat always felt like a landmark role for Cruise. It marks the first time the actor toyed with the role of anti-hero. But it’s also significant that while the homoeroticism of Top Gun was more of a byproduct than a necessity of that film, it is baked into Interview with a Vampire in a way that can't be ignored. Being the early 90s an element of brevity can be seen in one of Hollywood's notable golden boys playing a character who is so against type. In looking at Cruise’s filmography, his most alluring performances are when he decides to go against the grain. His roles that play against or challenge his more typical masculinity are almost always more interesting than when he embraces it. Give me Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Magnolia (1999), or this over the ongoing Mission Impossible movies he’s seemingly resigned to do. Cruise’s Lestat is one of the few times he unlocks the sociopathic side. It worked so well that Rice took out a two-page spread in Variety praising his performance and admitting she was wrong.

Cruise’s brash Lestat dampers Brad Pitt’s turn as Louis formidably. The contrast is palpable and possibly stems from Pitt’s depression when working on the film. The long dark days of a six-month stint in London had got to him so badly that he asked producer David Geffen how much it would cost to get out of the movie. The price? $40 million. Pitt’s passive Louis is a cypher, with none of the visual tics that the actor became known for. Interview with a Vampire trades in on his beauty, but none of the viral sexuality or energy that made him interesting in his earlier 90s films and beyond. It’s an overly mannered performance which comes off as flat and laboured. All the industry goes to Tom.

While an unevenness between the two leads exists, Interview is still an interesting artefact in that the homoeroticism still simmers under the lid. To see these now Hollywood heavyweights play out petty, catty arguments with each other like a middle-aged couple feels radical. As does the unconventional family unit between two male vampires and Claudia (a fantastically firey Kirsten Dunst), the child sired almost out of pity by Lestat. And we must remember Antonio Banderas, an Almodóvar fave, turning up in the latter stages. The film has more than a little queer credential. Allegedly Anne Rice’s fear of Hollywood’s homophobia was so great that at one point, she turned in a rewritten version of the film with a female Louis, with Cher in consideration for the role. By sticking to their guns Neil Jordan creates a far more engaging piece. It’s something you didn’t see a ton of in the 90s: a highly budgeted, queer horror film with Hollywood A-Listers. The only thing that comes close is perhaps one of Jordan’s influences on the film: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) which came two years before it. Although Coppola’s film outdoes Interview for out and out horniness.

Were the dark, gothic Vampires the perfect creatures for the cynical 90s era? Interview with a Vampire and Dracula suggest this. Both films were not only large in scale, and rich in detail. They were also big on existential malaise and deep-seated longing. In Interview, this is perhaps best exhibited in the unfortunate character of Claudia. Growing older in mind, but never in physicality, Claudia is possibly the saddest string in Interview’s bow. Along with the idea that vampires must keep in touch with the world as it changes and evolves. A latter scene involving Lestat alludes to a feeling of immortal senility as it is shown that he has not kept up with the changing times of the world.

It's perhaps fitting that Interview with a Vampire also feels trapped in a cocoon of its era despite its then-progressive handling of sexuality. In the latter half of the decade, Bloodsuckers had somewhat shed the angst brought on by Coppola and Jordan. Instead, vampire films began to get their bite back. With films which seemed more in tune with the grubby grit of Kathryn Bigalow’s Near Dark (1987) or even Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987).  People seemed less interested in seeing vampires as mopey sad bois on film. The latter section of the 90s gave us From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Vampires (1998) and Blade (1998). Although the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (1997) managed to keep brooding, gothic guys alive until Twilight (2009). That said, even creator Joss Wheadon had an innate desire to subvert elements of the gothic vampire tropes when looking back at his first attempt at the Buffy universe as a feature film.

The edgy vamps of the latter end of the decade illustrate one of Interview's weaknesses. After a while, these haunted sad sacks stop being engaging. Looking back at the film during this rewatch, I found the inner turmoil of Louis rather bland. Cruise’s Lestat, the driving force behind all the most entertaining aspects of the film, goes missing for most of the film's second half. While the film’s narrative dissipates once the action moves to Paris. The introduction of Antonio Banderas and Stephen Rea should be a boon for the story. Both actors put in decent turns. But the problem is that Louis remains uniquely unsympathetic throughout. It’s easy to feel like Lestat; infuriated with Louis's supposed “goodness” despite there being very little to him. One suspects the novel's success lies in how Rice rounds out the character. If any book fans stumble on this piece, let me know.

And it’s with this that I realised my issue with Interview with a Vampire. Despite the lavish detail and exciting, over-the-top performances from Cruise, Rea and Banderas, Louis is just a dull interviewee. Even with everything being told to an excited Christian Slater. In addition to the later stages' lack of narrative propulsion, Pitt's central performance highlights the trouble I now find with this gothic drama. But I can never be too harsh on it. Looking back on its release 30 years ago, what I also see is the kind of gateway drug to overblown, gothic horror that is always warmly welcomed by myself. Despite my issues with the material. Which is why I probably still own the DVD.