Lestat (Tom Cruise), the high-glam bloodsucker at the center of Interview with the Vampire, is a demon who knows how to have a good time. He may be hundreds of years old, but his spirit is teasing, youthful. He makes jaunty sport of his own immortality, flitting through the centuries as if life as a vampire were a decadent Eurotrash party that never ends.

A harlequin aristocrat with big white teeth, a luxurious cascade of blond curls, and a stare of haughty, cold-eyed relish — he looks satiated and ravenous at the same time — Lestat feeds on a steady stream of men and women, whom he greedily drains of blood and then tosses aside. Early on, though, he develops a special attraction to one victim, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), a New Orleans plantation owner of the late 18th century, still reeling from the death of his wife and infant daughter. Once bitten, Louis becomes Lestat’s protege, but he remains filled with guilty trepidation about his new, otherworldly state. He refuses to kill a human being and consummate his vampirism, surviving instead — to Lestat’s playful contempt — on a diet of rats, chickens, and dogs. Finally, Louis gives in to his role, drinking the blood of Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a prepubescent sprite who turns out to be every bit as ungrateful a vampire as he is. For the next few decades, Lestat, Louis, and Claudia form a kind of floating parody of a nuclear family, with Claudia, bratty and ill-tempered, remaining locked in girlhood, a surly Peter Panette of the undead.

Poor Lestat. He loves being a vampire, but no one around him will share his enthusiasm. Watching Interview With the Vampire, I knew just how he must feel. As a character, Lestat has brashness and verve, but, my God, what simpering, joyless specimens these other two are! Adapting Anne Rice’s hugely popular 1976 novel, director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rice, who wrote the screenplay, have gone to elaborate lengths to sweep us into an erotic dreamscape, a blooming midnight reverie of blood and danger and sin. Yet the pleasure of it all remains oddly remote. Set over a period of about 200 years, Interview With the Vampire has an atmosphere of moldering menace — the rotting dark colors are beautiful to look at — and there are creepy, spectral touches, such as the tiny, spreading veins that peer through the vampires’ translucent white skin. Dramatically, though, the picture is torpid. Rice doesn’t write dialogue, exactly; she writes mournful poetic gush. When the characters aren’t chomping on each other’s necks (always fun to see), they’re standing around in drawing rooms exchanging tormented pensées like, ”No creatures under God are so like He as are ourselves.” I think Interview With the Vampire is pretty awful — a hodgepodge of lurid spectacle and stilted, arty talk — yet it’s virtually guaranteed to become a hit. When a modern horror fable is given this lavish a production by this much big-name talent, even if it fails as entertainment it takes on the status of a must-see, a nostalgic reminder of an era when audiences still swooned with terror.

Back in that era, of course, vampires were figments of seductive evil. Rice, in writing Interview With the Vampire, jettisoned the old cornball symbology (the garlic and the crucifixes, the wooden stakes), but her true inspiration was to demystify vampirism itself, recasting it as a heightened biological and sensual state. Despite the flowery moroseness of her dialogue, the reader, in effect, was lured into becoming a vampire, experiencing the undead from the inside out. At the same time, the old-world mystery lived on in Lestat, the insolent pansexual seducer — a hip, mocking Dracula for an age of erotic knowingness. Released just as gay liberation was reaching its apex, Interview With the Vampire became both a gay cult novel and a new kind of woman’s romance, a night fantasy of masculinity melting away to deliquescent submission.

In the movie, rather than taking in the action through Louis’ anticipatory gaze, we’re simply watching Brad Pitt act like a spaced-out, dilapidated rock star; he looks like Evan Dando on some really bad drugs. Pitt can be a likable actor, but in Interview he gives a dismal performance, leaving the movie without a center. As a character, Louis stays tangled up in his own gloomy remorse (forget the casket — he might as well be living in a confessional booth), and watching Pitt, about all we register is his stony simian stare: the thick lips and zombie eyes, the look of vague dyspepsia that could be anything from fear to constipation. Cruise does much better. Suggesting at moments a sleeker Tiny Tim, he gives an engaging star performance, caressing his words with theatrical delectation, playing Lestat as a high-camp fop who laughs with caustic delight at his own appetites. If there’s a limitation to Cruise, it’s that, beneath the mottled-flesh makeup, he doesn’t exactly seethe with sensuality. His very competence — and eagerness — in this role comes off as an admirable stretch, but he hasn’t endowed Lestat with the dark fillips of perversity that might have made the character memorable.

Still, he remains the only one to watch in Interview With the Vampire. After a while, Lestat disappears from the story, and the film disintegrates into fragments. Louis and Claudia go scampering off to Paris, where they run into a whole cult of vampires who entertain themselves by staging eccentric theatrical rites I never began to know what to make of. Jordan, who up till this point has given the action a static unity, now reaches for effects all over the place. Maidens are stripped and sacrificed, burning bodies go flying, Stephen Rea (from The Crying Game) shows up and mugs as if he were in the middle of a Monty Python sketch. Through it all, however, one thing remains constant: the guilty, whiny agony of Brad Pitt’s Louis — the vampire as eternal killjoy. He looks like he could use a transfusion, and so, by the end, could the entire movie. C-

Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
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