ESPRIT DE CORPSE

After much carping, since recanted, by author/adapter Anne Rice about Tom Cruise's suitability as one of the leads, the film version of Rice's wildly popular novel Interview With the Vampire has at last reached the screen. With it, the New Gothic arrives full force as a mainstream vogue, though it's been heralded for quite a while by such films as Wolf, The Crow, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Ken Russell's Byronic orgy Gothic, and, more recently, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The New Gothic is a form of pop romanticism that emphasizes the sexual and spiritual appeal of the macabre, and its superiority to the privations of civilized life. That, at least, is the ostensible appeal--the real turn-on may well be more the lace-and-ruffle fashions favored by the characters in so many of these tales. In any case, while swoony romance is probably an improvement in horror movies over the piling-on of more expertly faked gore and glop, it has the potential to emasculate the genre. The magnetism of "the dark side" is a constant, latent theme in horror tales, and making it overt--turning it into a sort of negative-image New Ageism--could shrink its power.

A little surprisingly, though, Interview With the Vampire is actually quite a lot of fun. Rice's dialogue dithers on a bit at times, but her adaptation is nonetheless full of inventive incident, and the director, Neil Jordan, renders it lushly, yet with vigor and humor. Jordan, best known for The Crying Game, has covered this turf before--his little-remembered 1984 film The Company of Wolves, a series of surreal riffs on the Little Red Riding Hood myth, might arguably be called the first example of a New Gothic movie.

Yet the pretty boys hurt the film--Jordan's direction is a triumph despite, not because of, the performances of Cruise as the joyously predatory vampire Lestat and Brad Pitt as the Louisianan Louis (the interviewee), Lestat's morose, guilt-ridden victim turned prot‚g‚. Rice was right the first time--Cruise really isn't up to the role, though he's much less annoying than the leaden-voiced Pitt. Conceivably, it might have helped if they'd swapped parts. Louis' pangs of conscience might have been within Cruise's range, but Cruise's attempt to convey Lestat's feral blood lust is (forgive me) anemic. The lack of bearing he and Pitt bring to their roles makes many scenes that should be wittily chilling verge, instead, on camp. When Lestat pesters Louis to give in to his craving for human blood, you feel that both lads need to be sat down and given a good talking-to about the evils of peer pressure.

Kirsten Dunst plays the little girl who becomes Louis and Lestat's vampiric consort. Her diction and comic timing are impressive; she robs the stars blind when she's on-screen. Of the three, she seems like the grown-up.

There are piquant touches all the way through the film. Louis, for instance, turns into a cinema buff when he reaches the 20th century, because it's the only way he can see the sun (he's shown leaving a theatre showing Tequila Sunrise). And there's a marvelously realized, pure-terror scene in the film's second half, in which a Parisian theatrical troupe made up of vampires performs a real killing before a rapt audience of humans who suppose it to be a Grand Guignol show. As the lead "actor" of this company, Stephen Rea gives the best performance in the film. A rather subdued leading man, Rea springs to life in this very small role. Alone among the film's adult vampires, he is truly terrifying, and his first appearance, in which he does a prissy little dance right up the wall of a tunnel, is Jordan's most magically spooky moment. As faithful adaptations go, Rice may not realize how good she had it. Though Francis Ford Coppola gave the title Bram Stoker's Dracula to his movie version of the Dracula myth, it's doubtful that Stoker would have recognized much of himself in the MTV-meets-Harlequin Romance approach Coppola took to the material. Now, Coppola has produced a film named Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and hired the prodigal Kenneth Branagh to direct and star in it. For better and worse, the title is accurate this time.

Frankenstein, though it is the one great novel ever written by a teenager, is still unquestionably a teenager's work. The plot is full of miracles of coincidence which make the mere generation of artificial life seem mundane by comparison. Still, the book packs a punch. The theme--that one is responsible for that which one creates--carries the weight of true tragedy, and Shelley uses it to transcend the claptrap of the Gothic genre. For his Promethean hubris, Shelley's hero, the overreaching Dr. F., is punished with the pitilessness of a Euripides. The version of the story known to the world, however, is not Shelley's novel but director James Whale's movie of 1931, in which Boris Karloff's unforgettable miming of Frankenstein's hulking handiwork made him a star. Though the plot's horrors were considerably diluted, to allow for a happy ending and the milder tastes of the '30s, this is the version that elevated the tale to the level of myth. What makes the film so indelible is, I think, the very fact the monster was reduced from Shelley's articulate and reflective creation to a preverbal brute. Shelley's monster chastises his maker with high rhetoric, backed up with quotes from Milton. The novel's points are well-taken, maybe, yet in spite of a body count that wouldn't shame a slasher movie, its drama finally feels abstract. Karloff's wretched, imploring grunts made the same case in a way that felt realistic--you could smell the graveyard dirt on him, and he really seemed like a thing created yet uncontrollable. Branagh, who directed two enchantingly good film adaptations of Shakespeare (Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing), sticks to Shelley's plot. He makes just one major departure, and it's probably an improvement--the episode in the novel involving the creation of a bride for the monster is disappointingly anticlimactic. Moreover, Branagh's exhaustingly reckless pace attempts to approximate the frenzied, hysterical tone of Gothic fiction, in all its logic-defying Sturm und Drang.

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