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Movie Review : 'Vampire': Undead on Arrival : Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt try to infuse the characters of Anne Rice's bestseller with the age-within-beauty quality.

November 11, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Interview With the Vampire" is half alive, which for a movie about the undead is not as bad as it sounds.

Directed by "The Crying Game's" Neil Jordan from the brooding, sweepingly popular book about how "the dark gift" of eternal life is passed on from the vampire Lestat to a handsome young aristocrat named Louis, "Interview" has been the subject of considerable speculation because of the divergent public positions author Anne Rice has taken about the film version.

Rice broke with protocol more than a year ago to lambaste the selection of Tom Cruise as Lestat and Brad Pitt as Louis, scathingly comparing it to "casting Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer" and reserving special scorn for Cruise, "who is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler."

Then, about a month ago, Rice appeared to reverse herself, saying the finished product "surpassed my maddest expectations" and stunned her with how faithful it was "to the spirit, the content and the ambience of the novel." Now that the film is here, these seemingly contradictory positions turn out to be both correct.

For director Jordan, whose elegantly gory 1984 version of Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" can be seen as a dress rehearsal for "Interview," has a feel for the supernatural and a gift for establishing creepy mood and atmosphere that this film fully exploits.

Whatever else it lacks, "Interview" does a gorgeous job of re-creating not only 18th-Century New Orleans and 19th-Century Paris but also the book's genuinely weird, disturbing, almost unimaginable world of those who can never die.

Put together by a superior team, including Oscar-winning "A River Runs Through It" cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who lit the film with Chinese paper lanterns), "The Age of Innocence" production designer Dante Ferretti and "Orlando" costume designer Sandy Powell, "Interview's" visual strength does all that can be done to convincingly set the stage for drama. That element, however, almost never arrives because "Interview With the Vampire" is fatally anemic in terms of emotional weight and attachment.

Although the book was originally written out of Rice's agony at having lost a young daughter and consequently has a powerful air of despairing melancholy about it, the movie version (with a script credited to Rice alone, although Jordan is known to have contributed) has little sense of love or loss for an audience to connect with.

The reason is the casting, where the filmmakers made a pact with the devil and have paid the price. After Daniel Day-Lewis, who would have made a memorable Lestat, turned the role down, it went to Tom Cruise, he of the $2-billion and counting worldwide gross, while Louis' part went to the equally photogenic Pitt.

And why not? Jordan and company insisted as the outrage mounted. The vampires were young and handsome and the actors playing them should be likewise. The dramatic reality, however, is subtler than that. What makes Lestat and Louis such involving characters is that they have ancient minds and souls in their lithe bodies, and neither Pitt nor Cruise has the persona or the acting range to convey that critical age-within-beauty quality.

Pitt has an easier time of it with Louis, the young Louisiana plantation owner turned vampire with a conscience who despairs at having to take human life to live. As he tells his story in today's San Francisco to a young journalist (Christian Slater, who replaced River Phoenix), Louis remembers back to Louisiana in 1791, when he was a 24-year-old widower who longed to be gone himself because of his wife's recent death.

Instead of expiring, Louis is turned into one of the brotherhood of darkness by the sinister Lestat, the cold and hateful vampire's vampire who kills for revenge against life and whom the book describes as "masterfully clever and utterly vicious."

Although he works his hardest at the part and doesn't embarrass himself, even with the help of Stan Winston's vampire makeup Tom Cruise is plainly miscast as Lestat. He is determined and has his moments, but it is simply too much of a stretch even from his Oscar-nominated role in "Born on the Fourth of July" to play a hateful 18th-Century French fop with the fey habit of bringing his handkerchief to his mouth. And with Lestat softened, the fury Louis and Claudia, the 5-year-old turned into a vampire by Lestat's whim, come to feel toward him makes less emotional sense.

While the movie eliminates several of the book's characters, it wouldn't dare do without Claudia and Armand, a Parisian vampire met during the next century when Louis goes abroad on a kind of fact-finding mission. Both 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst and the magnetic Antonio Banderas bring the kind of delicately eroticized menace to their parts that Cruise and Pitt ought to be conveying but can't manage, and "Interview" is better for it.

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