I'm sure that some wags will insist that the really scary Tom Cruise sit-down is Interview with the Scientologist, or whatever it was that made the rounds of YouTube a while back. Watching the ardent and strangely animated Cruise suddenly devolve into intense scorn and then back again into near hilarity on that recent interview is something to behold. It's really instructive in light of his work almost a decade and a half ago in the then long awaited film adaptation of Anne Rice's worldwide sensation Interview With the Vampire, which reinvented the whole vampire mythos with a sort of postmodernist twist that enchanted and disturbed reading audiences in equal measure. Rice's vampire Lestat was a singular creation, a sort of sadistic conman, part rogue, part tragic icon, sucking (literally) his hapless victim Louis into a life of darkness and relegating them both to half-lives of reckless and restless wandering through centuries of sadness.
The film, for those of you who have been living under a rock and never heard of the source material or adaptation, is told from Louis' viewpoint and simply recounts his history of becoming a vampire at Lestat's hands (teeth?), setting him off on his tragic path. The first part of the film takes place in New Orleans in the 1700s, which director Neil Jordan recreates with some elegantly gothic touches. Brad Pitt's Louis is set up as something of a wastrel to begin with, even in his human form, as he mourns the recent death of his wife and daughter (something Rice herself changed from her original novel, where Louis mourned the death of his brother). Lestat (Cruise), sensing an easy neck to feed on, and perhaps more than that--a chance for companionship--offers Louis the chance to join him among the immortals. Louis accedes, quickly realizing that the vampire's life is not all Lestat has cracked it up to be.
Soon Louis crosses path with a young girl named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), whom he and Lestat make, somewhat to Louis' chagrin, into their vampire daughter, so to speak. Claudia's tragedy mirrors Louis'--she is doomed to forever being a child, as once you're a vampire, you stay the way you were when you became one. As the film progresses down several decades and Claudia slowly becomes more sexually aware, her pint-sized frame becomes a drawback, leading to one of the major conflicts in the film, between her and Lestat.
The second act of the film brings Louis and Claudia to Paris, where they get involved with a troupe of vampires pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires in a nightly theater presentation redolent of the Grand Guignol horrors that were being visited on Parisian audiences throughout the late 19th century. Enter Armand (Antonio Banderas), head of the theater troupe, who may or may not have been the scoundrel who transformed Lestat into one of the undead, and who now has eyes for Louis. A second wave of tragedy subsumes Claudia, leaving Louis more alone than ever as the film finally draws to its kind of jokey denouement.
Interview With the Vampire does a formidable job of creating an unsettling mood. Whether it's watching Cruise bite into a rat and squeeze its blood into a wine glass or Pitt take on a nemesis with a scythe, slicing him in two, Vampire is full of one unsettling image after another. The production design is almost palpably dank throughout the film, with masonry swarmed by tendrils of foliage and dark shadowy abysses lit by flame. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot purposefully keeps most of this film extremely dark, lending a suitably amorphous quality to not only the surroundings, but the characters themselves. When Cruise or Pitt flit from place to place unexpectedly, it can be more of an aural experience than a visual one, and that actually makes it incredibly effective. Elliot Goldenthal also contributes one of his better scores, full of brooding minor chords and some very effective string writing.
If Rice's characters are fascinating in their own right, they never really totally populate this film in a completely visceral manner. Pitt and Cruise are both hampered vocally by their prostethic teeth, giving their dialogue an almost comical lisp, and Pitt's over-enunciation just sounds ridiculously theatrical at times, especially since Louis is actually the least theatrical of the main vampires in the story. Cruise is creepy, there's no doubt about that, but his Lestat is more of a cartoon than a character, highlighted by the final scene that plays like something out of a very special episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. The real stars of this film, at least performance wise, are Dunst and Banderas, both of whom do unforgettable work in supporting roles. While Dunst is obviously still finding her filmic feet in this role (watch especially as she loses a bit of focus as she exits frame in a lot of scenes--you can almost see her looking around for direction), Banderas has never been better. He is intense, moody and, unlike Cruise, truly frightening. Had he played Lestat instead of Cruise, Vampire might have been raised to a level unimagined by even Rice. Also doing some very nice work here is Jordan compatriot Stephen Rea, bringing a little comedy relief as one of Banderas' performing vampires in the Parisian theater. The whole homoerotic subtext of a lot of the film also plays too broadly and unintentionally comically to ever make any kind of statement beyond becoming an instant classic of camp.
Interview With the Vampire is long on atmosphere. In fact you'd be hard pressed to find a more simply atmospheric film in the past 15 years. But it's an atmosphere surrounding a largely empty shell full of histrionic actors chewing the scenery but never really making an emotional impact. They are, in fact, a perfect metaphor for the vampire: soulless, walking through life as if a shadow, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.