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When the late author Anne Rice came onto the literary scene, vampires were almost going out of style. But thanks to her Interview With the Vampire novel, which kickstarted the exploits of the gothic, villainous Lestat, Rice managed to invest her take on the iconic creatures of the night with a unique, almost human, dimensionality.
You could argue that Anne Rice reinvented the vampire, which translated into how some children of the night were portrayed in movies, especially in films based on her own work. Early literary and cinematic vampires emerged from the catacombs as hideous monsters. The warped face of Count Orlock in Nosferatu is pure nightmare fuel, and Bram Stoker sought to make the titular count in Dracula a soulless beast before vampires ever materialized onscreen. He was the type of monster readers could neither sympathize with nor forgive.
The repulsive visuals of early vampires on film were reflections the unmitigated evil they were perceived to be, and while there is a glimpse of humanity in Bela Lugosi’s Dracula when he confesses his envy for human mortality. Most earlier vampires were as black and white as the films they haunted. They later evolved to be more vicious in color with B-movies like The Hunger and The Blood Spattered Bride. The insatiable bloodlust of these fangbangers stained movie vampires with a stereotype that wouldn’t die.
If the vampires of the ‘70s and ‘80s weren’t slick with blood, they existed as comedic exaggerations of themselves in mostly forgettable camp horror flicks. Those that fell into neither extreme still needed a hero to exterminate them. Joel Schumacher’s iconic film The Lost Boys, sees a pack of vampires face off against an underground band of vampire hunters. Blade and its sequel Blade II saw vamps through the eyes of Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire title character. He saw his own blood as vermin that that must be crumbled to dust by the first rays of dawn.
The closest thing to a vampire with human emotions pulsing through his veins was Jesus Gris of Guillermo Del Toro’s 1993 breakout film Cronos. Even he withered to a ghost of himself after succumbing to uncontrollable cravings for human blood. It was a year later that Interview With the Vampire would bring an entirely new species of undead from Rice’s 1979 book to life.
Rice was originally against Tom Cruise playing the iconic role of Lestat, arguing that he was too short, among other things. The Brat Prince of vampires is supposed to command an entire ballroom with his presence. Her opinion shifted after watching the film. She then declared that, no matter who else walked in the skin of the character, Cruise would be the Lestat no one would ever forget.
Lestat, Louis and other creatures of the night that lurked in the dark mansions and back alleys of Rice’s imagination appeared in theaters not long after the Francis Ford Coppola revival of Bram Stoker’s Dracula projected a mostly unsympathetic view of the reclusive count. The night dwellers of Interview merge monster and human to the point that you sometimes forget what they are until they flash a glimpse of fang. Even those who have never read any of the Vampire Chronicles books can appreciate how the onscreen adaptations of these characters are so physiologically and psychologically human.
These are not vampires who just suck their victims dry and leave a trail of corpses. They are fascinated by humans and envy their fleeting lives. Unlike Orlock and older Draculas, they look human, can feel at least as intensely than humans do, and even mingle with humans, at least after dark.
The humanity of Anne Rice’s vampires flows through both Interview With the Vampire and Queen of the Damned. They even follow a certain code of ethics, as seen in the flashback when Lestat’s maker Marius teaches his protégé not to be overly greedy and drink the last drop of blood from his victim. Marius warns that it will suck a vampire in and kill him. The art of the “little drink” (though it is not explicitly referred to as such in the movies as it is in the books) is something Lestat teaches Louis and Claudia as a mode of survival that allows vampires to feed enough to sustain themselves without taking lives. Rice explains this further in the universe of the books, revealing that vampires should hunt for criminals if they absolutely need to kill.
Those who can never get their fill of victims are looked at unfavorably—even queen of queens Akasha. Fanged actors from the Theatre de Vampires are sent to perish in the sun for their gluttony. Eternal child Claudia, a fledgling of Lestat’s, is viciously scolded when her maker discovers the corpse of an innocent woman she killed to gorge on her blood. Louis is so squeamish about hunting humans, he survives by feeding off the rats around his New Orleans mansion in the years after Lestat vanishes.
The beast inside a vampire hasn’t completely vanished from Rice’s versions. By some strange magic, the author was somehow able to infuse a monster with humanity without losing the monster. This has translated to film. Lestat still is still susceptible to losing control, and you are reminded that he is not exactly human when you glimpse by a random flash of fang or an unnatural glow of eyes seeking prey in the night. Paranormal investigator Jennie (who is eventually introduced to The Blood herself) is acutely aware of the predators she is surrounded by when she ventures into the smoke and shadows of a goth club infested with vampires.
Just the smell of human blood triggers cravings in more than one nocturnal patron. Reanimated queen Akasha awakes from a sleep of thousands of years, her thirst takes over an entire city. She leaves enough carnage in her wake to challenge Dracula’s body count. Also, no child of the ‘90s is about to forget that scene when Lestat sweeps the corpse of Claudia’s mother in his arms and dances across the room with it.
You can’t possibly discuss the evolution of vampires and influences on the subgenre without mentioning the romantic vampire craze that exploded with Twilight in 2009. As the opposite extreme of Dracula and Orlok, who only see humans as prey, hypersexualized emo vampires like Edward Cullen and Christian Grey are consumed by bursts of passion that could have come straight from a Victorian bodice ripper. It isn’t that Rice’s vampires are incapable of human love or lust. They are asexual but all flavors of romantic. The Edwards and Christians out there take morph vampires into soap stars that suck blood as a fetish.
The only human experiences that elude Rice’s vampires are eating and having sex. They can experience something that is supposed to transcend a sexual experience when they (consensually) suck each other’s blood. To quote a friend of mine, “Vampires eat people. They don’t sleep with them.”
The way themes of love and lust and romance manifest in the characters of Anne Rice is much more characteristic of what a hypothetical vampire should be. They connect through the psyche and the blood, something echoed most recently by the lovesick and desperate Adam and Eve who grapple for survival in 2014 film Only Lovers Left Alive. Vampire love is its own phenomenon.
Lestat is only an accidental sex symbol to legions of human fans in The Queen of the Damned. Most of them believe his fangs are no more real than than the spectacles his band puts on, but he is (like most of his kind) a recluse. The fangirls who stalk him after a drug-fueled show are asking for it when they sneak into his mansion and are never seen again. The closest any situation gets to Fifty Shades of Grey is the fling between Lestat and Akasha in Queen of the Damned, where they revel in drinking from each other, the ultimate act of intimacy between the undead.
Anne Rice’s vampires are actually undead. They cannot surrender to the pleasures and tortures of the flesh like Christian Grey or birth a hybrid vampire-child like Bella and Edward. They can, however, feel a powerful connection to others of their kind in a way which would be difficult the humans surrounding them to understand — if the humans were aware of their presence.
That contribution to the vampire canon, in both literature and film, is a large aspect of the author's lasting legacy on the genre. It's ironic that, in Rice's death, we better appreciate the mortal aspects of her immortal characters and their story.