Thursday, October 1, 2009

Suck It! Day One - Interview With the Vampire

I do so love a horror film when the weather gets colder and people start carving Jack-O-Lanterns, and a few years ago I did a bunch of posts about horror movies I loved. But this year, I thought I'd go for a more specialized set of films, given that this particular sub-genre has been experiencing something of a renaissance in the past few years and given that it's a practically a genre unto itself, more so than any other kind of monster films.

Yes, I'm talking about the vampire movie. There have been countless stories about vampires since they first started to appear in literature in the 18th century (though the notion of vampirism dates back thousands of years). And vampires on film are the quintessential movie monsters, in many ways the very foundation of the horror genre. Over the next five weeks, I'll be looking at (hopefully, if I can get to them all) roughly fifty notable entries in the vampire canon. Three particular characters of vampire legend crop up again and again in the genre. The first and foremost, obviously, being Count Dracula, who we'll see several times in the series. The other two being Sheridan La Fanu's fictional Carmilla and the real life (but endlessly fictionalized) Countess Elizabeth Báthory, both of whom we'll also meet over the course of the month.

Along with all kinds of other varieties of bloodsuckers. Gothic vamps, silent vamps, 80s vamps, space vamps, campy vamps, meta vamps, teen vamps, Mexican vamps, lesbi-vamps, Euro-vamps, and even ballet vamps. There is but one kind of vamp I'm keeping off limits, and if you know me at all, I think you know what I mean, so I won't even profane the illustrious vampire tradition by mentioning the name of the series that inflicted the (I can barely bring myself to type the word) sparkle on us all.

While MTV and other zeitgeist barometers are happy to give The Series Which Shall Not Be Named credit for the most recent surge in vampiric interests, there are two other authors that had a much (MUCH) bigger influence on our culture's fascination with the undead. And the one who is not Bram Stoker is who we'll look at today. Say what you want about her ego, Anne Rice created the modern vampire.

Interview with the Vampire

Back in 1976, before there was an internet she could use to accuse her readers of "interrogating the text from the wrong perspective," Anne Rice helped change the way we look at vampires. Sure, Dark Shadows was there first, in a way, but Rice made vampires glamorous, sexy, and downright fun killers. I'm still rather wowed by the eye candy for the ladies (and gay men, of course) in this movie - a pre-cuckoo Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt right (and I mean RIGHT) before he became a ginormous star, Christian Slater, Antonio Banderas, and (well, I think he's sexy anyway) Stephen Rea. (As a side note, can you imagine what this movie would have been like if Johnny Depp hadn't turned down the role of Lestat? Yeah, I'll be in my bunk.)

I have vivid memories of the anticipation of this film. On the day it was released, I couldn't go anywhere on my college campus without hearing people asking friends if they were going to see "The Movie" that night. My friends and I went to a packed midnight screening, where some members of the audience had even taken the trouble of dressing up in capes and fangs (a fairly new phenomenon for a trip to the movies at that time). And of course, right around the time it came out, there was this legendary Rolling Stone cover...

Attention Entertainment Weekly, THIS is how it's done.

Later entries in Rice's bloodsucking oeuvre would focus on the dynamic Lestat, but Interview is all about Louis. He's being interviewed (hence the title) by a guy named Daniel in the present day, and he tells Daniel about his life as a vampire, which began some 200 years before. After the death of his wife and child (in the book, it's his brother's suicide), Louis was numb with depression and longing to die when he met Lestat, who gave him a choice - die or become a vampire. Louis chose the latter, and the two of them became vampire companions until Lestat wore out his welcome in the lives of Louis and their vampire "daughter" Claudia (a then very young Kirsten Dunst).

If the relationship between Louis and Lestat sounds homoerotic, it's only mildly accidental, and maybe not even mildly. I can't help speculating whether the Tom Cruise we know today, the Cruise of South Park's "Closetgate" who has quite a history of litigation against people who claim he is gay, would have made the choice to do this film. I still remember the audience I first saw it with in Starkville, Mississippi cringing and wincing in the scene where Louis and Armand come dangerously close to kissing (and the en masse sigh of relief, followed by laughter at said sigh, when Louis broke away).

After fifteen years, I'm kind of amazed how good this still is. What really impresses me is how it plays in the current cultural obsession with vampires as tragic heroes. Lestat is such a great foil for Louis. Vampirism is just all kinds of awesome for Lestat, while it clearly tortures Louis, and it's fun to watch Lestat taunt Louis and mock his pain at taking human life. He's kind of like the no-soul version of Angel in Joss Whedon's Buffy series, only more likable, and his glee is such a great tonic to the Byronic stylings we've come to associate with modern vampires. What I wouldn't give for a crossover that turns him loose on an unsuspecting emo sparklevamp. I picture him saying what he says to Daniel's recording of Louis at the very end - "Still whining ... I've had to listen to that for centuries!"

Something else that amazes me is how freaking good Kirsten Dunst is in what was a rather chilling element to vampire lore - the child vampire. At twelve years old, she more than held her own with the megastars she shared the screen with. And maybe it's because she's playing someone who's internally an adult (and somewhat disturbingly, a lover of sorts to Louis), but she avoids that thing I can't stand about Dakota Fanning and other precocious child stars, who are way more mature and world weary than anyone their age is by any stretch of the imagination entitled to be. Hilariously, though, the main thing I associate her with regarding this film is an interview she gave during the press blitz where she talked about how gross it was to have to kiss Brad Pitt. She had me at "his lips were dry." Je t'adore, ma petite, but you will probably never live that down.

I'll leave you with a clip, which I think encapsulates the battle between Louis' suffering and Lestat's joie de (non)vivre quite nicely, as well as reminding us why Tom Cruise is a star.

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