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Anne Rice’s lusty, tormented vampires reshaped popular blood-sucking narratives for four decades, establishing a tone and template that influenced aspects of everything from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries and Twilight.
At the same time, Rice’s saga inspired countless attempts at contrast — stories about the undead that aimed to make vampires terrifying again (see something like 30 Days of Night) or to laugh at their torment (as in both movie and series versions of What We Do in the Shadows).
Interview With the Vampire
Cast: Jacob Anderson, Sam Reid, Bailey Bass, Eric Bogosian
Creator: Rolin Jones, from the book by Anne Rice
What may be most interesting about AMC’s adaptation of Rice’s seminal novel Interview With the Vampire is the sense that series creator Rolin Jones (HBO’s Perry Mason) is trying to split the difference — to give fans a Louis and Lestat that they’ll recognize, while at the same time taking a dehumidifier to some of Rice’s swampier prose.
It’s a worthy goal if not a perfect execution, and I think undead devotees preferring one extreme or the other — as if genre progenitors like Bram Stoker’s Dracula weren’t already half soapy melodrama and half horror — will be frustrated. But through five of the first season’s seven episodes, I appreciated the way this Interview solidified the source material’s central relationship, refined some of its more humorous aspects and plunged thoroughly into the campiness of others. It isn’t quite scary, but it’s at least unsettling at times.
Unlike the Neil Jordan feature, which Rice scripted herself, Jones’ adaptation maintains the shape of the book but very few of the specifics. The framing device introduces us to Eric Bogosian’s Daniel Malloy, an aging gonzo journalist, who, 40+ years earlier, conducted an interview with a vampire (Jacob Anderson’s Louis). A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Daniel has gone professionally fallow, so he jumps when Louis summons him to Dubai — chosen, presumably, as an isolated place where money can make your past disappear — for another extended conversation and the chance to actually publish this one.
Since Daniel is hardly “the boy” of Rice’s book, this series can almost be viewed as a sequel — or at least a critique of unreliable narrators, since the version of his life’s story that Louis is now prepared to tell has little in common with what he once recounted.
Here, Louis’ story begins in 1910 in New Orleans, with Louis as a fairly successful brothel proprietor in the city’s Storyville district. Louis is Creole and, as such, able to navigate a certain level of success in the city, but he remains an outsider — a man still grieving his late father, trying to live up to the expectations of his mother (Rae Dawn Chong), protecting his disturbed and unstable brother (Steven Norfleet) and aware that accepting his sexuality might make him a permanent outcast.
Enter Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid), charismatic and confident and utterly voracious in his appetites. I’ve read the book and seen the movie more times than I can count, and this is the most clearly I’ve been able to understand the relationship between Lestat and Louis. It’s partially that Jones and early director Alan Taylor can just let Lestat and Louis embrace their queer identities. But it’s also conveyed that, with his privileges of whiteness and self-actualization, Lestat represents something that Louis hungers for and knows the entrenched New Orleans establishment would never allow. The fact that Lestat is a vampire is secondary, at least for a while, until Louis becomes attracted by that as well.
Understanding and feeling the connection between Lestat and Louis is not the same, mind you, as wanting to endlessly wallow in their misery, or at least Louis’ ever-growing misery. He isn’t happy as a man of color being overlooked and marginalized in early-20th-century New Orleans and the dissatisfaction grows greater early in his newfound immortality. The movie, for me, becomes a slog almost instantly, and the series reaches a similar point after a couple of hours — the pilot is 66 minutes, followed by more traditional 40-ish-minute episodes — until Louis and Lestat make the ill-considered decision to expand their clan to include teenage Claudia (Bailey Bass).
Just as Kirsten Dunst’s magnificently and preternaturally unhinged performance as Claudia is finally the thing that elevates the film, Bass’ arrival is a shot of adrenaline for AMC’s Interview. She’s so funny and amusingly feral, and her take on baby-vamp misery is so different from Anderson’s, that I was able to accept the practical realities behind aging Claudia up from the book and movie. She’s maybe 14-ish here, able to pass for an adult; it’s a semi-necessary play to reduce creepiness and a totally necessary play to employ an actress who won’t go through puberty partway through embodying a character who can’t age on an ongoing series.
The series still finds poignancy in Claudia’s woman-trapped-in-a-child’s-body dilemma — with retroactive influence clearly coming from Let the Right One In, which is getting its own TV treatment on Showtime — and wide-ranging resonance in this blended family forced to exist on society’s fringes.
The subtext works better when laced with silliness and farce, part of an ongoing Interview With the Vampire campaign to take such things seriously but not too seriously. Making Louis’ interrogator a cynical and seasoned professional grants the series a degree of ironic distance. Daniel, both a prisoner and an honored guest in Louis’ opulent Middle East high-rise, issues withering scorn any time his host conflates, for example, his coming-out story with the story of his first kill. Sometimes that puncturing of rhetorical flourishes makes the series feel clever and meta, but sometimes it makes the show feel superior to itself — or at least to viewers who would prefer to simply get caught up in the yarn. Sometimes I chuckled wryly, but I just as frequently thought, “Man, why choose source material you’re so sure you can outthink?”
Luckily, the series’ ample technical pleasures are always there to admire. Jones and Taylor have Boardwalk Empire on their resumés and their appreciation for the style and societal fissures of the period come through in Mara Lepere-Schloop’s detailed production design, Carol Cutshall’s impeccable costumes and David Tattersall’s sumptuous photography. You can sense that Jones would just as soon do a story about the fall of Storyville and the vampires are just the gateway, but there are enough elements of viscous blood and vicious violence to satisfy most viewers. Any time you think Interview with the Vampire is on the verge of becoming too chilly — and a strict Rice adaptation should feel like a simmering dip in the bayou — you get a burst of over-the-top gore or floating, butt-bared sexuality extreme enough to evoke giggles that are probably intentional (but might not always be).
The solid cast offers some grounding, or as much grounding as you can get with an ensemble that looks ready to do a Nosferatu-themed perfume ad. Anderson is convincingly yearning and uncomfortable in his environment, while Reid is convincingly able to command every room. They have exactly enough chemistry to sell a coupling that’s immediately toxic and if you don’t buy it, that’s where Bogosian’s snark and Bass’ dangerous exuberance come in. Strong support comes from Norfleet, Chong and voice-acting king John DiMaggio as an alderman who embodies New Orleans’ condescending, racist establishment.
I’d say that eventually, Interview With the Vampire needs to come closer to choosing a tone — to deciding how much it wants to commit to the source material and how much it wants to abandon it entirely (as it will doubtlessly need, to depending on how many seasons are in store). But it’s possible that when you’re blending genres like this, a little ongoing chaos is OK. I’d also like to see a bit more sense of vampirism-as-metaphor in this now COVID-era tale that was, for so long, interpreted through the prism of AIDS. Overall, it’s a promising start with many appealing elements to chew on in the meantime.
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