The Sucking Game

The nation can rest easy now; another burning question has been answered. Tom Cruise can play a vampire, and he can do so well enough that you forget that you're watching the star of Risky Business. But how great an achievement is this, really? Bloodsuckers come in all shapes these days. The undead now control almost everything.

Actually, Interview with the Vampire is so massively bad, so incoherent and so campy that Tom Cruise's performance will be the least of a viewer's concerns. Unless you can quote Anne Rice chapter and verse, you'll likely spend most of the movie's running time wondering what the hell is happening and, more important, why.

The questions start in the opening scene, during which the vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) begins to tell his story to a reporter (Christian Slater) and his tape recorder. As the interview gets under way, you have no idea why Louis is telling his story to such a non-entity as this reporter, or why the reporter decided he wanted the interview in the first place. It's all just kind of happening.

Pitt looks fine as the desiccated vampire dandy, but once he opens his mouth to tell his 200-year story, he becomes more zombie than dark prince of the night. Given that the Rice phenomena is supposed to be a study in passion, it's curious that her leading man (this is Pitt's movie, not Cruise's) is so passive and withholding.

Here are a few verses from his story; devotees can hum along.
After Louis' wife and child died, he no longer wanted to live. A Louisiana plantation owner, Louis turned to debauchery, Creole-style, hoping that one of the rough characters he ran with would eventually kill him. Finally he met Lestat (Cruise), who was willing to oblige. But Lestat gave Louis a choice: actual death, or semi-eternal unlife as a vampire. While this was happening, Lestat kept muttering something about Louis having a choice "which was never given to me." Perhaps that was meant to explain his greater rage and his delight in human blood, which Louis never came to share. But no matter; we never find out what Lestat's mantra means.

Cruise actually has a giddy old time here. At the movie's campy best, he shows that Rice is well-served with comedy. He apparently lost weight for the role and displays a new physical sharpness. He takes genuine delight in the movie's gross-out jokes, as when he bites into a rat then passes it onto Louis. It's probably not Cruise's fault that his Lestat finally seems more a montage of mannerisms than a monster with a past.

It's the emptiness of Pitt's character that makes the movie most deadly. I'd have to label as "improbable" the notion that after 200 years Louis still hasn't accepted the consequences of his decision to go vampire. But even if we grant his stubbornness, this leads to a maddening character, one who can't take action. Again and again he turns from human victims to chickens and rats. Though this is mildly amusing at first, the fact that Louis never changes finally becomes exasperating. In the movie's truly eternal second half -- after Lestat has more or less disappeared -and Louis and his forever-young vampire daughter (Kirsten Dunst) take center stage -- Louis' handwringing overwhelms even the movie's over-the-top theatrics.

Louis has three major confrontations as the story's machinery grinds on. One is with a vampire (Antonio Banderas) who runs some sort of tourist show in Paris; another comes in his eventual return to Lestat; and finally, he has to deal with the reporter who now wants to become a vampire himself (this last is pretty unlikely, given how boring Louis' story is). In each case, Louis approaches his target, then backs off, finally disappearing altogether.

Imagine, if you will, William Shakespeare as a hack writer, then consider him writing an interminable Hamlet in which the "sweet prince" (Rice doesn't blush at fixing this Shakespearean endearment onto her undead guy) never takes any action, and you'll have some idea of how constipated Interview with the Vampire is. While I thought that Lestat was becoming a tiresome character, campy humor and all, I missed him (sort of) once Louis and his protege embarked on a thoroughly enigmatic European quest to meet other vampires and to thus "understand" their condition.

This notion is as precious and thin as air. What's to understand? Go drink your blood.

With a movie so empty and so banal, it's not surprising that the actors and filmmakers try to compensate with overacting and oodles of fog. This role is Banderas' worst since he came to these shores, and you can only wish that his old pal Pedro Almodovar was manning the camera. He might have thrown away the script and gotten straight to the story's trashy heart.

Instead, we get director Neil Jordan, who's befuddled here. After The Crying Game, with its stimulating gender bending, Jordan must have looked like just the man to render Rice's homoerotica and general sexual transgressiveness. And Jordan did direct an original and disturbing horror film of his own, the creepy fairy tale, The Company of Wolves. But chances at a big budget and mainstream success apparently stultify the Irish director, who bombed previously with Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn in We're No Angels. Here, when Cruise isn't on-screen, Jordan treats the material with undue solemnity. He's somber even when the material is at its most mindless, as when it breaks its own vampire rules from one scene to the next. One moment you can cut Lestat and his skin repairs itself; a few frames later you slash him and he falls apart. Such contradictions abound.

This is a very stupid movie, far worse than the lame Frankenstein, even worse than Coppola's Dracula movie (I think). The neo-classical monsters have been a total flop lately. Our filmmakers should look instead to today's terrifying headlines, and let the old beasts rest in peace.

Writers note: this is my last regular movie review for the Press. I've enjoyed my run; thanks for reading. D.T.

Interview with the Vampire.
Directed by Neil Jordan. With Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
Rated R.

120 minutes.


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