Thursday, July 5, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Interview with the Vampire (1994)

I vaguely remember when the film Interview with the Vampire, based on the novel by Anne Rice, came out, but I don't remember whether I wanted to see it. Although I've read the werewolf novels of Rice's sister Alice Borchardt (I strongly recommend The Silver Wolf), I never really had much interest in Rice's vampire novels or seeing the movies based on them.

Well, thanks to Myopia, I'm seeing a lot of movies I'd never otherwise watch, so here we go. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In the modern day, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) takes aside Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) and reveals to him that he's an immortal vampire. He begins telling his story, taking the viewer back to when he was a planter in French Louisiana in the late 18th Century. After the death of his wife and child he sought death, only to encounter Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), a French vampire. With Louis's permission Lestat transforms him into a vampire and the two of them form a hunting pair, eventually adding transformed pre-adolescent Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) to their crew as they live through the centuries and have various adventures.

The Good

*The acting is very, very good. Brad Pitt does a great job as the tormented Louis, who has to kill others to survive but hates himself for doing it. When we first meet him, he gets his unnatural nature across very subtly and without unnecessary drama (i.e. popping out fangs and hissing). Kirsten Dunst is good as Claudia, who grows frustrated that she's stuck in the body of a child for eternity and will never become a woman and acts quite like a teenager for much of the film. She eventually manages to pull off acting like an adult woman even though she's physically around 10.

*Tom Cruise as Lestat merits his own entry. He's appropriately obnoxious as the arrogant elder vampire, who soon after transforming Louis moves into his house and discusses his home and property as though it's "ours" and not "yours." Per some of the on-screen commentary that comes with Amazon Instant Video, Cruise watched videos of lions hunting gazelles to get the predatory aspect right. He's even more overtly creepy and predatory than Louis and seeing the brunette Cruise as a blonde is even more off-putting. Although at least some of Louis's slaves care about him, they're all quite justifiably terrified of Lestat. Cruise provides both slyness and manipulation (as this article points out, it resembles an abusive heterosexual relationship with Louis as the battered wife) and manic energy that's often quite funny (his training of Claudia in how to be a vampire). Whatever you might say about Scientology and Cruise's other...eccentricities (the above link, among other things, compares Lestat's relationship with Louis to Tom Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes)...he's probably the best actor in the film.

*There's some stuff in the film that's legitimately funny. In addition to how funny Lestat can be, Louis's "poodle massacre" is timed so well that it's hilarious.

*In the credits Anne Rice is listed as writing the screenplay. Although writing for film and writing for books are two vastly different skill-sets--with a novel you can throw in everything but in a screenplay everything must be explicitly on-screen or at least strongly implied on-screen--if a novelist can write a good script, having them at least involved in the script is a great idea. They'll know what's most important, they won't get stuff wrong about their own work, etc.

*It functions well as a period piece--in the 1990s frame story there's a lot of smoking, people are recording stuff on analog tape, etc. It also works well as a period piece for antebellum Louisiana, although there are some historical problems with the 1870 visit to Paris. Paris at that point was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War and nobody's going to be having balls, high culture, etc. there. The costumes are great and the filmmakers even gets into the subtle details of slave culture--in Catholic Louisiana, the slave religion is a lot more likely to have elements of voodoo (you see slaves sticking pins into dolls, some of the dances and ceremonies resemble stuff I've seen in documentaries about the Caribbean, etc) than in the Protestant U.S.

*The makeup crew got the vampires' unnatural nature done with great subtlety. The veins in the vampires' faces stand out and their eyes are strange--no need for elaborate special effects.

*There's also a nice bit of social commentary in making Louis a slave-owner. He's already a parasite--making him a vampire just makes it more overt. And as I noted above, Lestat is even more blatant--while Louis feeds on animals and hates himself, Lestat feeds on Louis's slaves.

*Since Louis cannot go out in daylight, there are certain colors he simply can't see anymore, like the blue of oceans. He's grateful for the advent of movies so he can see these things again. That's something I've never thought of and it's pretty clever.

The Bad

*The movie is a little slow in places. Louis is, after all, telling the story of his entire life, and it's not always going to be interesting. I'm not totally sure what the actual storyline is--Louis manages to escape from the need to have a quasi-boyfriend (Lestat, Armand), Louis figures out how to live as a vampire while maintaining his morality (okay they don't really do this, but he could feed only on criminals or work out a behind-the-scenes deal with the military or state government to serve as a soldier or executioner), etc.

*My Myopia co-hosts really liked Armand, but he felt kind of meh to me. Louis has his Catholic guilt thing and Lestat is over-the-top and often hilarious, but what makes Armand interesting?

*Even though the vampires can move so quickly people can't see them and heal wounds very quickly and Lestat seems to pay at least lip service to their need to hide their activities, one wonders how nobody notices Louis and especially Lestat are killing so many people. Louis remarks that Lestat kills two or three people per night and in one scene, they kill people at a high-class party. In another scene they wipe out a whole family coming to see Claudia play the piano, while Claudia herself kills people in public. There's also all the bloody clothes that presumably are getting laundered somehow. Louis's slaves seem to figure out something is going on pretty quickly (and at one point descend on "the big house" with torches), but Louis and Lestat never seem to need to get out of town quickly. Given how slaves in the antebellum South had a plantation-to-plantation gossip network that came in really handy for the Underground Railroad and Union forces during the Civil War, I imagine rumors would have spread of Louis and Lestat's behavior very quickly rather than being restricted to the slaves of Louis's estate. And that says nothing of their killing people in New Orleans, especially upper-class people who'll be missed.

*It's not clear whether being bitten by a vampire instantly kills or not. Lestat feeds on Louis once before transforming him and that renders him sickly but not dead, while the tavern girl Lestat kills when first teaching Louis to hunt doesn't seem to lose any blood at all. Claudia's bites seem to kill people pretty quickly, faster than Louis and Lestat's attacks, while another vampire we meet later in the film has a mortal child servant whom he seems to be nibbling on fairly often without killing him. In none of these situations do people seem to lose much blood. Dracula and the television series True Blood seem more realistic--people have quite a lot of blood and it would take multiple feedings to kill a person. That could have been an opportunity to contrast Lestat and Louis--Lestat demands blood from the slaves to the point it kills them (when he simply doesn't kill them immediately), while Louis (who is depicted as a relatively benign slave-master) tries to minimize Lestat's predations on them?

*As a brief conversation on the podcast alludes to, the film's depiction of slavery has some...problems. Louis's house slave Yvette (Thandie Newton) says the slaves are worried about newly-vampirized Louis because he's not going out into the fields (i.e. supervising them at work, which would require him to go out in the sunlight) or visiting the slave quarter? She asks him if he's still their master, which one can read as either her wondering if he's still the same person he was before (it's later revealed the slaves think he's turned into the Devil) or that she's upset that he's not supervising them and micromanaging their lives. You can see it in the script here and make your own judgments. Now, one could read visiting the slave quarter as him simply checking on them rather than something more sinister, but most slave-owners were NOT benign father-figures no matter what the Lost Cause nonsense teaches, and their visits to slave quarters might have had more sinister purposes. I initially thought the visits to the slave quarter she referenced were sexual in nature; it would be pretty screwed up if Yvette acts like him not doing that anymore is a bad thing. In Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868, which I read for graduate school, it depicts the racial environment of French Louisiana as less strict and cruel than the Anglo-American order that came with the Louisiana Purchase, but still.

I'm not going to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, so perhaps the reactions to Louis's strange behavior among his slaves could be depicted as being more mixed? Yvette might be concerned for Louis's well-being and want Lestat gone because she was hoping to take the place of his deceased wife (in French Louisiana there was this whole legal institution in which slaves and free women of color could advance their positions by romantic relationships with white men) and is actually jealous of Lestat. That's what I meant when I commented in the podcast about how Yvette being jealous of Lestat would further emphasize the homoerotic nature of Lestat and Louis's relationship--she would view Lestat as a romantic rival. This would still allow for the dialogue between Yvette and Louis without suggesting that the slaves in general actually miss their master and would show Yvette exercising agency despite her not really having a lot of choices.

Meanwhile, other slaves are glad Louis isn't bothering them and perhaps take advantage of the fact he's drinking the blood of livestock rather than eating actual meat to improve their diets? Much African-American cuisine is based on parts of animals the slave-owners didn't want, and some accounts I've read of slavery involve slaves taking food from "the big house" to supplement their crappy rations and getting punished. Given how we see slaves mourning friends and relatives killed by Lestat, perhaps there could have been a scene where we see slaves sneaking around with dead chickens and other birds killed by Louis (and commenting on Louis's behavior as they do so), only for Lestat to ambush them? Then we see the slave voodoo rituals and the like, culminating in them marching on Louis's mansion with torches. One doesn't need to spend a whole lot of time on this issue--it would only need the tweaking of some of Yvette's and Louis's dialogue and maybe an additional scene of Lestat being a predatory scumbag.

*Later in the film, some other characters do Louis a great wrong (not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers) and he gets away from them and they know he's gotten away from them, but they take no precautions. Then he comes back for revenge. How stupid are these people?

The Verdict

A little slow in places, but overall a very well-done film. 8.0 out of 10

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