Some might find this hard to credit, but for a brief, shining moment in his somewhat miserable life, Bela Lugosi was a sex symbol. This was back in 1931, when he played Dracula. Of all movie monsters, the vampire is the most seductive, and vampirism is the favorite gothic metaphor for erotic abandon — in the days of vampire chroniclers Bram Stoker and J.S. Le Fanu, considered an unmentionably bad thing. Their works posited a battle between debauched immortality (vampire) and uncorrupted mortality (victim). Hence the fairly simple equation: The hotter the vampire, the more white-throated and trembling the vampire’s intended, the more discomfiting the saga.
One of the thornier contradictions inherent in this proposition is that discomfiture doesn’t suffice to make a good movie. Consider the newly released Interview With the Vampire, which almost entirely dispenses with mortals and concentrates on the vampire’s way of coping with his or her condition, lacks tension, but is absorbing and poetic.
In Interview, vampires are the beautifully cruel rulers of the night and their victims more often than not anonymous toys. It follows bloodsucking dandy Lestat (Tom Cruise) and unwilling convert Louis (Brad Pitt) as they bicker their way through meals and ”adopt” a young girl (Kirsten Dunst). Despite initial outcry over his casting, Cruise delivers a perfectly adequate performance; his main problem is his familiarity. Cruise, being one of the most recognizable actors alive, can’t reinvent himself enough to pull off the complete otherness of the vampire. Everybody else involved with Interview (aside from Christian Slater, woeful as Louis’ modern-day interlocutor) does right by Rice; the production design, cinematography, and music are all magnificent. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) imbues several scenes with eerie poetry that honors such great movie fantasists as Jean Cocteau and Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau, and these touches look good on video — this shadowy movie has been sensitively transferred to the small screen.
In fact, if there’s a problem with Interview, it’s Rice’s concept. In creating her wildly imaginative vampire cosmology, she rejects the ingredient that has fueled the genre for so long — the battle between good and evil. The guilty conscience of Louis is one thing, but the internecine struggles of like-minded creatures seem petty. Rice may argue that the very idea of a war between the forces of light and darkness is hopelessly outmoded in a vampire story, where virtue is just another word for sexual repression, and she may be right. Still, when a bloodsucking theatrical troupe descends on a pretty victim, the terror of its actions doesn’t fully register; she’s reduced, as it were, to food. B