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SOMETHING TO SINK YOUR TEETH INTO

The new-wave ghouls who inhabit Anne Rice's vampire novels don't back off from the traditional threats. Wave a crucifix in the face of one of these doomed, androgynous wanderers and he'll coldly laugh it off. Drive a stake into his heart and he'll come right back at you, bloody in fang and claw. Bring up that tired old Count Dracula riff and this pale sophisticate will dismiss it as "the vulgar fiction of a demented Irishman."

In fact, Rice's revamped vampires seem to have less in common with Bela Lugosi than they do with Bela Bartok: Eternally young and restless, they tend to be finicky aesthetes who are far more concerned with their own veiled sensuality and the agonizing search for self-knowledge than where their next goblet of blood is coming from. Like the spirit of our own century, they are both arrogant and anxious, caught between inflicting terror and suffering from it.

It is probably this complexity of character that has confounded Hollywood's great minds for eighteen years. Interview With the Vampire, the first installment of Rice's widely read trilogy, has finally been made into a movie, but since the rights were bought shortly after publication in 1976, the project has slipped through the fingers of, among others, fallen producer Julia Phillips, director John Boorman, half a dozen bollixed screenwriters and actors ranging from John Travolta to Jon Voight to Cher.

Mogul David Geffen and Irish director Neil (The Crying Game) Jordan have finally gotten the job done. Powered up by three of Hollywood's most magnetic young stars--Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Christian Slater--this bloody, witty film reproduces the intelligence of Rice's book (she wrote the screenplay herself) and offers horror fans a vision of the night that is at once ancient and curiously postmodern, and brims with metaphorical potential.

In the beginning (which is to say, before she got her paycheck from the studio), Rice brayed long and loud about the casting of dramatic lightweight Cruise as Lestat, the cunning ghoul who for centuries draws innocent mortals to his dark flame. Rice wanted someone massive and threatening, like Rutger Hauer. But Cruise, playing against type, pulls this off, and Rice has since recanted. Desiccated and elegant in a thick blond wig, Cruise strikes the right balance between the diabolical seducer and the tragic romantic whose appetites can never be satisfied. There's cold fire in his eyes, a nasty chill in his voice, and he strikes like a serpent. Effective stuff--but then, there are those who would say playing a couple of lawyers was the ideal preparation.

The rather more-vulnerable-seeming Pitt (A River Runs Through It) makes for a good foil. Louis de Pointe du Lac is an eighteenth-century Louisiana aristocrat drained by the deaths of his wife and child, and his nihilism proves fertile ground for the marauding Lestat. Here is a companion for the ages he can bend to his own purpose. But Louis is also Rice's most versatile creature, dramatically speaking. Lestat converts him to vampirism, but Louis clings to his human heart: This spiritual conflict makes him the ideal bearer of a harrowing and timeless tale (it is Louis who is tape-recorded in a San Francisco loft by cynical reporter Slater), and it makes him the story's conscience. At times, Pitt has you aching for Louis.

Director Jordan, no stranger to the bizarre, enlivens Rice's philosophical launches with some dazzling Grand Guignol effects--the burning of New Orleans in the 1790s, a binge of vampire vengeance in the catacombs of Paris almost a century later, a shocking surprise in the fast lane of the Golden Gate Bridge in our own day. But these visual spectaculars--in contrast to the bombast of Kenneth Branagh's disappointing new Frankenstein--remain subservient to Rice's spiritual and hyper-romantic anchors.

This is, in fact, a film that virtually forces us to go shopping for allegories. You may discover another commentary on AIDS, the modern obsession with youth and beauty or a trot on self-destructive vanity. The picture has something to say, too, about the guru's gift for coercion, the quest for eternal love and the abuses of power. Is it all too much? Not at all. There's plenty of room in the tale, so its underlying ideas rarely crowd each other.

A modern writer, not a Victorian, Rice also touches on the definitions of womanhood. Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), Rice's defiant child of eternity, gets short shrift in the film version, but she's still around to curse Lestat for the prison he's cast her into and to raise the image of rebellious daughters everywhere to new heights. The graveyard wit this bloodsucking hellion lays on the male vampires who would contain her is brilliant: Talk about a dysfunctional family!

If Louis--half monster, half human--embodies the troubled soul of the age (he can even watch the silent version of Nosferatu with ironic detachment), Lestat is the ancient evil that endures. In Rice's revisionist mythology, vampires can and do die (just ask the Parisian contingent headed up by Antonio Banderas and Stephen Rea), but they are a tough lot--despite the curse of loneliness.

With that in mind, these moviemakers have left the coffin lid slightly ajar, because they're clearly contemplating the sequel. For now, this beautiful, compelling and intelligent Interview just might put Lugosi and company out of business. In any case, it's a long time until sunset.

 
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