How do you like being food for the immortals?
From the Anne Rice novel of a vampire telling his story to a mortal reporter comes a rich, textured tale spanning centuries. Unlike most vampire films, this one comes from the point of view of the vampire himself, as he struggles with what he has become, the meaning of life, and the dichotomy of feeding from humans yet trying to remain one in spirit. Beyond such heady issues comes the episodic story of his life, or unlife if you will, from the time he is first approached by the one who would make him a vampire to the present day. The film pulls no punches, often showing cruelty and decadence, and offers a visual gourmet feast in set design and production. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood signed up for this much-anticipated film, and it succeeds while keeping the spirit of the novel. Since Anne Rice wrote the screenplay herself, it is not surprising how faithful to the book it was, though it is more surprising how well the actors brought these characters to life. Warner has now offered a re-issue of this film, one of the earliest discs produced, with a new, better looking transfer, both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks, and a nice selection of extras. I'm very pleased with the results, and I think you will be too.
I was one of many fans of the Anne Rice novels who were awaiting the 1994 release of Interview With the Vampire. What actually turned out to be the most remembered aspect of the film before its release was the decision to cast Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, The Color of Money) in the role of the Vampire Lestat. There was a firestorm of controversy at the time. Even Ann Rice had her grave doubts about the casting, as did I, since the novels portray Lestat as a tall man and Tom Cruise, for all his ability, is not what you would call tall. Or blonde. However, all doubts were put to rest after seeing the powerful performance Cruise accomplished. He became Lestat, with a depth of performance we've seen since but not before.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps I should provide the story synopsis here. Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys) plays Louis, a vampire who is over 200 years old and has encountered a reporter who managed to strike up a conversation rather than become the evening meal. Louis has long struggled with what it is to be a vampire, and retains a level of humanity that keeps him in a state of emptiness and self-loathing at feeding off humans. Without true explanation, Louis decides now to tell his story to the reporter, perhaps as some sort of catharsis. The interviewer is played straight but interesting by Christian Slater (Pump Up the Volume, Hard Rain, Broken Arrow), who is understandably skeptical but quickly convinced of the fact that Louis is indeed a vampire.
Louis goes back to the late 18th century to begin his tale, as he is despondent over the loss of his wife and child, and is eager for death. Along comes Lestat who recognizes this desire and offers him an alternative; eternal life without the pain of the mortal coil. Lestat is fully comfortable with his role as a killer, looking upon humans more as a source of food and amusement, but Louis has a conscience and doesn't want to hurt anyone. At first Louis tries to survive by feeding upon animals (resulting in one darkly funny scene with a couple poodles) but he is too weak to restrain either Lestat or his own hunger. To keep his hold on his new companion, Lestat takes an even darker step: to turn a young girl into a vampiric "daughter" for them to raise. Kirsten Dunst (Jumanji, Little Women), at only 12 years of age, was called on to play a most demanding role as the girl who would grow old but never grow up. She becomes quite the apt pupil for Lestat, becoming much like him but resenting him as well. Ultimately a confrontation with their erstwhile leader will culminate in Claudia (Dunst) and Louis leaving for Europe on their own.
This takes us to the next chapter of the tale, as Louis and Claudia look for others of their kind, finally finding them in Paris. Antonio Banderas (Desperado, The Mask of Zorro, The 13th Warrior) plays Armand, a vampire leading a troupe of others at a theater called, appropriately enough, Theatre des Vampyres. Here they put on horrific plays and blatantly feed on mortals on stage, where the audience uncomfortably convinces themselves they are merely watching a show. Ultimately, here too will be a confrontation with tragic consequences, taking us back to the present day with the interview.
I mentioned the spectacular performance of Cruise as Lestat, who was totally convincing as a sinister, flamboyant, and cruel vampire; one who is totally comfortable with his immortality. He often showed a darkly funny side as well, and many scenes play out as a very dark comedy. At other times he is able to project a quiet and sympathetic quality. As great as Cruise was, however, Kirsten Dunst held her own and even stole some scenes. She portrayed a tremendous depth of emotion and made a convincing portrayal of a being with the body of a girl and the eyes of a 30 year old. Truly an amazing performance for her age, one in the league I hold only for those such as Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
Still, this is the story of Louis, and certainly Pitt did a great job in a difficult role. Louis maintains an eternally suffering face to the world, and his angst must have been difficult to show in scene after scene. It is refreshing during the scenes when he does come into his own strength and control and doesn't feel the need to cry the eternal question "Why?" to the universe. Perhaps what I am saying is he did the role well; it was just a tougher role to watch and enjoy than the other main characters.
Banderas as Armand, and the other supporting cast were excellent; but are nearly swallowed up by the powerful performances by Pitt and Dunst.
So we have an interesting and deep story with great performances, but another factor in the overall strength of this picture are the incredible production values and set design. Each location and set is opulent, textured and rich, portraying a period feel while keeping a morbid and often gothic atmosphere. The direction by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair (1999), Michael Collins) was brilliant and showed a keen eye for the material as well. I was pleasantly surprised by how he managed to keep the flavor of the novel while making necessary changes and cuts for cinematic presentation. I should mention both the set direction and the wonderful Elliot Goldenthal score were nominated for Oscars. The cinematography and effects were likewise beautiful; especially the transformations from mortal to immortal which were stunning.
All right, sign me up for the fan club I guess; but let me talk about disc quality, a more objective subject. The first release of this film on DVD was among the first produced in 1997 on a single layer disc. Like the other re-releases Warner has made this week, the difference in authoring techniques and the dual layer disc really show in the picture quality of this new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Colors are faithfully reproduced, especially blacks and the unearthly flesh tones of the vampires. Details are sharply defined, with only a hair's breadth of edge enhancement occasionally visible. There is a very tiny amount of motion artifacting, but the overall look is quite pleasant and smooth. An improvement over the already good-looking first release, this picture will please viewers; the flaws I mentioned are barely visible to a reviewer looking for them.
Newly remastered from the original 20 bit masters are new Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English and French, and a DTS 5.1 English track. There were only small (but noticeable) differences between the two English tracks. The DTS track was a bit more expansive and had more presence in the musical score, but I have to give the nod to the Dolby Digital track for having clearer dialogue. Accents made dialogue a little harder to understand, but both tracks had a bit of a strained quality to the dialogue, resulting in my need to boost the center channel a bit. I felt I had to boost it a little more on the DTS track than the Dolby Digital to understand all the words. Still, both tracks have great imaging and directional use of surrounds with both bold music and nuanced quieter scenes being clearly heard in a wide and deep soundfield. Besides the small problem with boosting dialogue, both were excellent tracks.
The original release was a nearly extra-free zone; but that deficiency has been made up here. Director Neil Jordan provides a great deal of insight and information about the making of the film in a feature length commentary track. Most surprising were the 3 hour make-up jobs done to give the vampire's preternatural look, and the fact that so many digital effects were used in such a way as to be invisible and unnoticed; providing ambiance and depth to scenes rather than blow us away with special effects. In the Behind the Scenes section there is also a new 30-minute documentary containing interview footage with author and screenwriter Anne Rice, special effects head Stan Winston, Neil Jordan, and cast members Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, and a grown up Kirsten Dunst, along with many others of the supporting cast and crew. A fine documentary you should not miss. I liked the commentary track but enjoyed the documentary even more. Cast and crew information on Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and director Neil Jordan and the theatrical trailer are also provided. There is also a 1 minute introduction to the film by Anne Rice and Neil Jordan setting up the film that you can reach from the extras menu. Lastly there is a weblink to a DVD event under the "History of the Vampire" label, but the link didn't yet have the event listed at review time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I mentioned my few gripes with the transfer and soundtrack, but I only have one complaint left with the disc. It is a small one as well, but you must watch the new introduction before watching the movie. You can fast forward through it but you can't just skip ahead to the beginning of the movie. Making it available from the special features menu is superfluous since you already had to see it with the movie. Just a minor gripe.
As for the film, it will make some people uncomfortable. Some scenes are disturbing to say the least, and Anne Rice's vampires have always been a little on the homoerotic side, projecting an almost androgynous appearance. Fortunately there is never any actual homosexuality (I really didn't want to see Brad Pitt kissing Antonio Banderas, and they don't) but homophobes should be prepared. There are several comedic scenes, but even those are pretty dark and not for everyone. I liked the dark quality of the film and the nature of the vampires in Rice's universe has never bothered me.
Fans of the film should wait no longer and buy this disc. My few complaints are small and greatly overshadowed by the finer qualities of the disc and the film itself. It is truly a visual feast and a look at a genre from a totally different viewpoint. Heartily recommended. This disc is now immortalized for your viewing pleasure just as the vampires within.
Anne Rice is to be commended on both her novels and this screenplay, and I greatly look forward to movie adaptations of the rest of her Vampire Chronicles. All others involved in the film have my respect and release to make more films, though they are not required to sit under my judgment. Warner is complemented on re-releasing a disc and greatly improving it, and our viewing experience in the process.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary
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