City Paper is not for tourists
Who’d have thought Neil Jordan would reconceive Anne Rice’s sepulchral Interview With the Vampire as a sitcom? The film’s utter failure to keep a straight face as it relates Rice’s melodramatic tale effectively undermines its attempts at terror and suspense. Fear, it turns out, is incongruous with watching Tom Cruise in a shoulder-length powdered wig squeeze the blood from a squirming rat into a crystal goblet.
Vampire opens as its title character, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), begins to narrate his 200-year-long life story to a credulous modern-day interviewer. As a young man in 18th-century Louisiana, Louis is attacked by the vampire Lestat (Cruise) and ushered unwillingly into the ranks of the damned. A lingering belief in the sanctity of human life makes Louis a washout as a vampire (he even has trouble with a miniature poodle) and heightens his disgust at Lestat’s rapacious blood lust, but because the older creature is his only source of knowledge about what he has become, Louis is bound to him by ignorance. Sensing his protégé’s restiveness, Lestat devises an ingenious means of keeping him by his side: He creates a vampire child, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), knowing that softhearted Louis will be unable to desert her.
The bloodsucking threesome then proceeds to act out a cloying My Two Dads scenario—only with more blood. (Lestat blows his stack when he catches his mischievous daughter breaking the “no corpses in the house” rule, and so on.) But though Vampire‘s funny moments aren’t funny, its frightening ones are. The film’s grab bag of late-show-caliber effects includes throbbing heartbeat noises, Children of the Corn-style luminous eyes, and a plasma bank’s worth of syrupy blood. Similarly, with all the possibilities offered by cinematic technique, one wonders why, for instance, Claudia’s transformation from mortal to vampire is symbolized by…a new hairdo.
But it’s not only the film’s special effects that are lacking: Much of its acting wouldn’t merit callbacks at a dinner-theater audition. Nuanced interpretation can often neutralize dialogue as overblown as “you never knew what life was until it ran in a red gush over your fingers!,” but there’s no such activity in evidence here. Those performers who are convincing—notably, Stephen Rea and Antonio Banderas in supporting roles—only make matters worse by throwing the principals’ unconvincing performances into bold relief.
Like Jordan’s The Crying Game, Vampire utilizes provocative issues for reasons that have more to do with style than substance. Here, the director refers to homosexuality (Lestat and Louis are presented as a bickering couple in the classic tradition of romantic comedy) and pedophilia (we learn that Louis and the little girl sleep together in the confines of a single coffin) without actually addressing either. The film’s references to the former are as multitudinous as they are superficial: To complete the vampire-creation ritual, for example, Louis must literally “suck off” Lestat. Afterward, the pair wear post-coital smirks. And when, in Paris, Louis confronts sultry fellow vampire Armand (Banderas), the pair flirt with a full-on kiss before pulling away. (In Philadelphia, Banderas was similarly disallowed on-screen contact with a same-sex love object.)
Toward Vampire‘s conclusion, it descends into outright parody as if it just can’t contain itself any longer. It’s more than a little anticlimactic when, after the preceding Sturm und Drang, it turns out the filmmakers are willing to sacrifice the movie’s thematic integrity for sight gags on the order of a vampire leaving an evening showing of Tequila Sunrise.
While Interview With the Vampire doesn’t take itself seriously enough, Kenneth Branagh’s overwrought Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein takes itself far too seriously.
In his adaptation of Shelley’s complex novel, Branagh interprets Victor Frankenstein’s story as a colossal bout of uterus envy. Birth imagery crowds the film, appearing for the first time when Victor’s mother dies in childbirth and sparks his obsession with outwitting death. This grisly scene is not subtle in its depiction of birth as a violent act, and this reverberates nastily through the remainder of the film. Later, when Victor himself creates life, Branagh patterns the procedure after the childbirth process. The being (Robert De Niro) emerges, covered with viscous secretions, from a fluid-filled chamber; an ovary-shaped bulb pulsates gently overhead; the receptacle’s water even “breaks” to herald the creature’s imminent arrival. Such imagery is not limited to on-screen action: Frankenstein‘s press kit notes that it took “nine long months of research and development” to perfect the creature’s prosthetic skin.
Having spent a privileged childhood in Geneva with his adopted sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) leaves home to study medicine in Germany, where his championing of the “new science” shocks the medical school’s old-fashioned faculty. There, Victor’s private lodgings give him free rein to indulge his interest in reanimating the dead, and his collaboration with Professor Waldmann (John Cleese), a university doctor whose forays into the unknown have made him a pariah, supplies him with the scientific know-how he needs. Before long, Victor’s plundering the morgue and paying off midwives for supplying him with amniotic fluid. Yet when his project finally comes to term, Victor is horrified by the enormity of what he has done—he leaves his patchwork creation for dead, and it escapes in the confusion wrought by a cholera epidemic.
The film opens with a voice-over quote from Mary Shelley that—like incorporating the author’s name into the movie title—is presumably meant to italicize the film’s faithfulness to the book. Producer Francis Ford Coppola started this highfalutin trend with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but like that film, Frankenstein has little in common with its novelistic forebear. For starters, Branagh insists on making Victor and Elizabeth’s love story the focus of his suspenseless film. This decision, though it provides Branagh an excuse for a shirtless snogging scene, is hardly worth it. Frankenstein should, after all, be a monster movie. And in Branagh’s version, there’s just too little monster. It scarcely seems fair that the creature must compete with a pair of insipid lovebirds for screen time.
Branagh carries his birth metaphor through to its logical conclusion, positing the creature as an abandoned child and Victor guilty of infanticide. Despite the fact that he appears to be trapped inside a large sausage casing, De Niro elicits an unexpected measure of sympathy for the creature. Shelley’s depictions of his doomed efforts to win acceptance are the book’s most touching, and the same is true of Branagh’s film. The hapless creation is, after all, alienated through no fault of his own: His cries for revenge have the urgency of childhood frustration and his jealousy echoes the infant’s desperate possessiveness. As for Victor, he must bear the literal and metaphorical burden of the perennial parents’ lament, “I’ve created a monster!”