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This Week in Genre History: Interview with the Vampire makes for boring conversation

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Nov 11, 2020, 4:33 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Every generation gets its iconic vampire tale. It’s been more than a decade now since the first Twilight film hit theaters, turning Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart into superstars and inspiring the mad devotion of legions of fans. But before Twilight, there was another bloodsucking phenomenon that made the leap from the page to the screen, becoming a box-office smash and breaking records as the biggest R-rated opening weekend of all time (at that point). But not before it seemed like it was going to be a total disaster.

On Nov. 11, 1994, Interview with the Vampire opened across America, introducing moviegoers to Anne Rice’s novel about Lestat (Tom Cruise), a vampire who befriends Louis (Brad Pitt), an 18th-century New Orleans gentleman mourning the death of his wife and child. Turning Louis into a vampire, they spend the next several decades together luxuriating in their ennui, eventually adding a young girl (Kirsten Dunst) to their moody brood. With hints of homoeroticism that had to be carefully shielded because of the era in which it was released, Interview with the Vampire faced all sorts of problems during its making — not least of which being that Rice absolutely hated the idea of Cruise playing her beloved Lestat. (“You don’t usually start a movie with someone not wanting you to do it,” Cruise said at the time. “That’s unusual.”)

Lots of masterpieces have to deal with behind-the-scenes drama. (In some ways, all that uncertainty makes the film’s eventual acclaim all the more satisfying for those involved.) But Interview with the Vampire is that rare case of a highly anticipated movie beset with problems that ends up making a ton of money but is, nonetheless, pretty awful. The film might have turned out better today, when both Hollywood and its audience seem a little more willing to embrace queer love stories. But that’s hardly the only deficiency of this overdramatic, very silly movie.

Why was it a big deal at the time? A movie starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt? In 2020, that would be a major event, but in the early '90s... well, it still was fairly huge, but both stars were in a very different place in their careers than they are now. Cruise was a massive star thanks to Top Gun and The Firm, and also gaining respect as an actor because of acclaimed dramas such as Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. So it didn’t seem that odd that he’d choose to play the brooding, beautiful Lestat. (A somber role in a potential blockbuster would merge his commercial and artistic sides.) But fans of Rice’s popular 1976 novel (the first of several to feature Lestat) went into an uproar, convinced he lacked the gravitas and depth — and the height — to play such a commanding, charismatic presence. You know how comic book fans get enraged when a new Batman or Joker is announced, complaining that the new actor is all wrong for the part? That same vitriol was pointed at Cruise for Interview with the Vampire — encouraged by, of all people, Rice herself.

“The Tom Cruise casting is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work,” Rice said early on, later adding, “I have one question: Does Tom Cruise have any idea of what he’s getting into? I’m not sure he does. I’m not sure he’s read any of the books other than the first one, and his comments on TV that he wanted to do something scary and he loved ‘creature features’ as a kid, well, that didn’t make me feel any better. I do think Tom Cruise is a fine actor. [But] you have to know what you can do and what you can’t do.”

As for Pitt, he was a far less well-known entity. After his breakthrough in Thelma & Louise, he’d starred in the bomb Cool World, gotten good reviews for A River Runs Through It, explored his dark side with Kalifornia, and played a memorable stoner in True Romance. So landing the part of Louis was a huge step up, except Pitt didn’t know what he was getting himself into. “There was no script,” he complained in 2011. “I knew the book, and in the book, you have this guy asking, ‘Who am I?’ Which was probably applicable to me at that time. ‘Am I good? Am I of the angels? Am I bad? Am I of the devil?’ In the book, it is a guy going on this search of discovery... But then I got the script two weeks before we started shooting.” 

To his chagrin, Pitt realized that Louis had been de-emphasized so that Lestat was more of the main character. “No discredit to Tom, man,” Pitt said in that same interview. “He had pressure on him. There were all the fanboys of the book. He had all this pressure to make it work.”

Meanwhile, Neil Jordan was red-hot due to his Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay for The Crying Game. The Irish director had previously made a horror movie with 1984’s The Company of Wolves, but this was his first big studio gig. “[I] thought [Anne Rice’s script] was really interesting and slightly theatrical,” he said in 2014. “Then I read the novel, which is extraordinary... It’s not very often you can make a complicated, dark, dangerous movie and get a big budget for it. Vampire movies were traditionally made at the lower end of the scale, on a shoestring, on rudimentary sets. [Vampire producer] David Geffen is very powerful and he poured money into Interview. I wanted to make it on an epic scale of something like Gone With the Wind.”

The circumstances all seemed perfect for a hit: big star (backed by a rising star), hip director, culturally prominent book. Plus, vampires were in vogue after 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an Oscar-winning commercial success. Even the initial backlash to the casting of Cruise had been addressed: About a month before the film’s release, Warner Bros. put on a P.R. blitz insisting that Rice had seen the film and “loved” him in the role. (According to Geffen, “She even phoned [Cruise] up and told him she was wrong. It’s a great thing when someone who had been critical of a movie saw it, loved it and admitted she was wrong... a very classy thing to do.”) Maybe they’d caught lightning in a bottle?

What was the impact? Interview with the Vampire debuted at the top spot its opening weekend, beating out the other new release, The Santa Clause. The film was the 11th-highest-grossing movie of 1994 in the U.S., just behind Pulp Fiction. It received two Oscar nominations — for Score and Art Direction — but critics were generally unimpressed by Cruise. Back when Rice had initially been unhappy about his casting, she had said, “I wanted a great actor of appropriate voice and height who could carry the part — [John] Malkovich, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons. It’s a different league... When you’re talking Lestat, you’re talking Captain Ahab, Custer, Peter the Great. It’s that kind of class act.” Reviewers tended to agree, with the Dallas Observer’s Matt Zoller Seitz writing, “because the role is emotionally static and one-note, it can’t hold our attention unless it's played by an actor with deep reserves of mystery, elegance, and sexual power. Cruise has no such qualities.”

But the creative failure of Interview with the Vampire was hardly Cruise’s fault alone. Pitt was utterly wasted as Louis, who is reduced to drifting through the narrative as Lestat calls all the shots. Dunst, whose character becomes the spirited daughter in this bizarre pseudo-family, at least brought a little life to the proceedings, but the film simply seemed too campy and navel-gazing to truly connect. (This is the film’s central conflict: Lestat wants Louis to behave more like a vampire and prey on humans, and Louis doesn’t want to, so instead he does nothing.) As gorgeously shot as the movie was, if Jordan’s point was to show the downside of being a vampire, he succeeded all too well: These characters were a complete drag to be around.

What is interesting about Interview with the Vampire is its muted, but still evident, gay subtext. The intimacy of Lestat’s initial attack on Louis has an undeniable sexual edge to it, and several of the film’s male vampires have an almost flirtatious rapport with one another. But this was long before LGBTQ+ love stories were remotely common in studio movies — Brokeback Mountain was still more than a decade away — and so that angle wasn’t explicitly explored. 

Last year, Jordan was asked if anyone ever told him to pull back on the homoeroticism. “I mean the movie is true to the book, I think,” he replied. “Anne Rice wrote the script. I didn’t change anything. If anything, I made it more penetrating and troubling in that regard... [Cruise and Pitt] played it more like master-slave, or dominance is more the fore of their relationship than sexuality. That is true. But I wasn’t told to take anything out of it. I wasn’t told to pull back on the homoerotic elements at all.”

One suspects that if Interview with the Vampire were made today, the sexuality would have been more prominent — resulting in a much more emotionally charged film. (By taking its sensuality more seriously, it would have been sexier as a result.) Instead, what we were left with was an awkward attempt at the sort of brooding Gothic romantic horror that’s meant to send shivers down your spine. In reality, though, the film mostly just made you giggle. 

Maybe the upcoming AMC series based on Rice's work will see a different result.

Has it held up? If anything, Interview with the Vampire feels even tamer and more inert than when the film was first released. As cheesy as Twilight was, it and the many vampire-related, Netflix-adjacent programs that have come out recently now feel like the way modern audiences think of bloodsuckers — as opposed to this tortuously self-important drama. 

Rice wrote subsequent novels about Lestat, but they failed to translate into a film franchise. (Does anyone remember the 2002 movie The Queen of the Damned?) Watching Interview with the Vampire now, it’s not a surprise that there weren’t sequels, despite the fact that it was a hit. There’s really nowhere else to go with this world — it feels dead on arrival. 

It’s also shocking to see two very good actors each give one of their worst performances. One suspects that, now later in their careers, they would have found something more electrifying to do with these parts. It’s not exactly the same type of roles, but Cruise’s outlandish turns in Magnolia and Rock of Ages at least show him flashing the flamboyance that he lacked with Lestat. And Pitt has only grown into a more compelling onscreen presence since saying goodbye to Louis.

Of course, Pitt was excited to put Louis in the rearview mirror even back then. In that 2011 interview, he talked about how miserable he was during the shoot, recalling trying to talk Geffen into letting him out of his contract. “I said, ‘David, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it. What will it cost me to get out?’ And he goes, very calmly, ‘$40 million.’ And I go, ‘OK, thank you.’ It actually took the anxiety off of me. I was like, ‘I’ve got to man up and ride this through, and that’s what I’m going to do.’”

The experience of sitting through Interview with the Vampire is no less excruciating. 

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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