Thu Nov 10 21:33:45 PST 1994

Tom Cruise Sinks His Teeth Into "Vampire" Role

But he lacks the edgy angst of Anne Rice's Lestat

By Edward Guthmann
Of the Free Press staff

SAN FRANCISCO -- In her classic piece of pop fiction, Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice introduced the vampire Lestat, a remorseless, insatiable, unforgettable fiend of the night. Like most great villains, Lestat indulged in forbidden acts and made us envy a delicious, rapacious freedom we can never know.

Bristling with haughty panache, he also had a comical edge. He was Vincent Price in fangs and a cloak. He was Captain Hook. He even had a touch of Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." He wasn't Tom Cruise.

That was Rice's reaction when the boy in the football jersey was cast as Lestat in the new, big-budget film that opens today at Bay Area theaters. "Tom Cruise is no more my Lestat than Edward G. Robinson was Rhett Butler," Rice said. Rutger Hauer, she added, might be the ideal choice.

Now that the film is out, Rice is recanting, praising Cruise's performance. Go figure.

This much is true: Tom Cruise is better than expected, but not good enough. Outfitted in prosthetic fangs, translucent white makeup and a long, frizzy wig that makes him look like Tiny Tim, Cruise brings tremendous exuberance -- if not a lot of insight or nuance -- to the role of the vampire.

Feasting on necks, wrists and mouths, even draining the blood of a rat to make a rich, nourishing cocktail ("I don't call it living; surviving perhaps"), Cruise has a fiendish good time with the unrepentant Lestat. And when he takes the young Louisiana plantation owner Louis Pointe du Lac as his protege, introduces him to the ecstasy of blood-sucking and exhorts him to surrender to his "dark gift," Cruise gives vivid expression to the vampire's wild, unquenchable thirst.

Cruise has an advantage here, which is the fact that "Interview" is such ripe, new territory for him. After playing a series of earnest young things with quick- trigger tempers and remarkably white teeth, and doing so in high-profile hits, he's bound to be admired for attempting a "stretch" like this -- even though it's an actor's imperative to play a variety of parts.

What's missing from Cruise's performance is an edge of tragedy -- the anger and loneliness that Lestat carries through the centuries and tries to smother with nightly rampages. Cruise delivers a ousing star turn, but he doesn't reach any surprising depths and doesn't give much conviction to such lines as "My days are sacrosanct." His field of imagination doesn't extend that far.

Directed by Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), who treats this material like a twisted fairy tale with slashes of occasional humor, "Interview" also stars Brad Pitt as Louis, the melancholic vampire who suffers from his "lingering respect for life." In a role that was meant to be played by River Phoenix, Christian Slater is the interviewer to whom Louis tells his story. (In the book, the interview took place on Divisadero Street. In the film, it's a second-story office at the tawdry corner of Sixth and Market, and Slater is a journalist working for KFRC.)

Bridging the worlds of the living and the undead, Pitt has the more interesting part, and yet seems to walk through "Interview" in a medicated fog -- as if Louis' existential ennui had sapped his energy. The film's lightest, most satiric section has Kristen Dunst playing Claudia, the curly-haired young girl who forms a macabre "family" with Lestat and Louis, and then can't refrain from killing everyone in sight -- piano teacher and dressmaker included.

But when Claudia and Louis try to eliminate Lestat, and then escape to Paris, where they meet a pair of vampire actors with unplaceable accents (Ireland's Stephen Rea and Spain's Antonio Banderas), "Interview" loses its focus and delirious momentum. The movie starts to ramble and feel episodic, as if it was incorporating too much of Rice's book. You start to miss the insoluble conflict and the homoerotic tension of the Lestat/Louis relationship.

The strongest suit in "Interview" is the visuals. Filmed in New Orleans, Paris and San Francisco, it was photographed by the gifted Philippe Rousselot ("Sommersby," "Dangerous Liaisons") and given a lush production design by Dante Ferretti ("The Age of Innocence") that suggests a series of dark, velvety storybook illustrations: the New Orleans waterfront of 1791, for example, with its baleful moon, inky-blue clouds and full-masted tall ships.

"Interview With the Vampire" isn't the audacious, dipped-in-indigo dream come true that Rice's fans have awaited since the book's 1976 publication. What could be? Instead, it's a modestly entertaining, astonishingly beautiful movie that hints at the strange attraction of evil and sexual transgression, but suffers the limitations of Cruise's eager, misplaced talent.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Stephen Rea, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater and Kristen Dunst. (Rated R. 120 minutes. At the Coronet, the Stonestown and the Century Plaza 8.)

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