GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Interview With The Vampire
Warner Brothers, 1994
Starring: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kristen Dunst, Antonio Banderas, Stephan Rhea, Christian Slater
Rated R, 123 minutes
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya
Rated R, 123 minutes
It is not surprising that vampires, known for often seducing their prey before they kill, have traditionally been portrayed as heterosexual in the movies. Because they feed on blood, the gender of the victim should be irrelevant but Count Dracula still ignores Jonathan Harker and favors his fiancee. A few exceptions, however, have surfaced in recent years. With Halloween close by, let's take a second look at the two best known gay vampire flicks, Interview With The Vampire and The Hunger.
In 1994, Neil Jordan, director of the gender-bending The Crying Game, seemed the ideal choice to bring Anne Rice's classic Interview With The Vampire to the screen. Rice wrote the screenplay herself but then took out a full page ad in Variety to express her outrage over the casting of Hollywood's biggest pretty boy, Tom Cruise, in the pivotal role. Widespread rumors whispered that Cruise wanted the gay subtexts toned down or eliminated, as if playing a gay man would ruin his "wholesome" image while playing a vampire would not. But the rumors turned out to be unfounded and, for once, a fine story that dripped with homoeroticism was not "de-gayed."
The film's framing story takes place in present-day San Francisco. Brad Pitt stars as Louis, a morose vampire who has granted an interview to a young writer. Louis became a vampire in 1791. In life, he was a young New Orleans plantation owner haunted by the loss of his wife. He strolls the waterfront, inviting the local criminal element to kill him. Instead, he meets Lestat (Tom Cruise). Louis quickly finds Lestat's teeth in his neck and falls back in an orgasmic swoon. Lestat offers Louis a chance to escape his pain, and transforms him into a vampire.
It is important to note here that Rice's vampire mythos differs greatly from the standard Hollywood formula. Instead of joining the undead when bitten, their victims simply die. In order for Louis to become a vampire, Lestat must first drain Louis' blood to the point of death. He then pierces his own wrist and forces Louis to drink. The mix of Lestat's blood with his own brings about the change. Thus, the making of a vampire involves a conscious choice between both hunter and prey. It is, in some ways, almost an act of love when Lestat chooses Louis to be his companion.
Their "marriage" however is far from happy. While Lestat is a born predator, Louis is uncomfortable with having to kill. Lestat repeatedly urges Louis to embrace his "true nature" and to stop running away from it. (Does this sound like a coded treatment of homosexuality to anyone else here too?) When Louis threathens to abandon Lestat, the two men become parents of a kind. Louis pities, and then feeds, on a young girl named Claudia whom he finds starving in a tenement. Lestat turns Claudia into a vampire so she can be a companion for Louis. The three live as a family for over a century. Claudia, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a unique character because she becomes a 100 year old woman trapped in the body of a 12 year old girl. Her desire to "grow up" leads to tragedy.
Later, they discover more of their kind living beneath a Paris theater. There, Louis meets Armand (Antonio Banderas), the world's oldest living vampire, who is bored with the old world ways of his companions. He is drawn to Louis because he worships his youth and sees him as a "bridge" to the next century. They share the film's most erotic moment when they almost kiss.
Why does Lestat choose Louis? A simple answer might be his desire to share Louis' wealth, but it is more complicated than that. The gay question enters here. He could have chosen a woman to be his consort. Lestat is clearly attracted to Louis and his attack is an obvious seduction. It is a credit to both actors that they did not shirk away from this aspect to their characters. If Lestat loves beauty, it seems perfectly natural for his prey to include men as well as women.
Interview With The Vampire, on both the page and onscreen, fascinates because of the completely new spin given to the old myths. I'll be honest, the movie pales next to the book but director Jordan did an admirable job in capturing its dark mood while peppering it with gallows humor. The homoerotic element could have been taken further but I was happy with what was there when I first saw it in the movie theater with my partner, Andy. Pitt is marvelous as the angst-ridden Louis while Cruise is positively exuberant as the callous Lestat. Is it a positive depiction of homosexuality? Of course not, we're talking about a vampire story here. Is the introduction of gay themes just another attempt to be shocking? Perhaps in other hands, but Rice has stated in several interviews that she considers herself to be a gay male trapped in a woman's body. By the way, she changed her tune about Cruise after she viewed the finished film.
[Reviewer's note, 2007: I still think this film was bold for its day, but in light of the recent behavior of one of the film's stars, it's hard to watch it the same way anymore.]
Interview With The Vampire is stylish and boasts a very strong script. The Hunger, on the hand, has style aplenty but is quite frankly incoherent. Nonetheless, it's great to look at and it's a queer cinema milestone of sorts.
In The Hunger, (1983), Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie portray Miriam and John Blaylock, as vampires of an elegant sort who've lived together for 200 years. The Bela Lugosi archetype is completely dispensed with and given a facelift to reflect modern times. Deneuve and Bowie are cool, beautiful, and the embodiment of vampire chic! Impeccably dressed in punkish leather, they pick up a young couple in a loud dance club and take them home. After going through the motions of a hot seduction, both take Egyptian ankh necklaces and slash their victims' throats. No fangs here. The victims, like Rice's, simply die. Our "heroes" then play chamber music and generally wander aimlessly around their classy, but tomb-like, mansion. "Forever together," they keep telling each other.
Until suddenly John is sleepless and begins to age. He learns what is starting to happen. Miriam has lived since the ancient Egyptian dynasty with consorts of both sexes. After roughly 200 years, each consort suddenly ages and "dies." Her ex-lovers are kept in crates in the attic, frozen but still aware. Though Miriam loves John, and is clearly upset by his decline, she has already chosen his successor.
John has paid a visit to Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), the author of Sleep and Longevity. When Sarah sees John age 30 years in her waiting room, she tracks him to his home. By this time, John has already joined the others in the attic, and Miriam has eyes for Sarah.
Their seduction scene is charged with sexual passion. The two women drink wine while Miriam plays the piano. Miriam resembles the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, icy and dressed to kill, while Sarah looks butch in a white t-shirt and slacks. When Sarah spills wine on her shirt, Miriam helps clean up and they begin to kiss. The subsequent bed scene is sensuously filmed with billowing drapes and soft music while two of the most beautiful women in the world make love and then drink from each other's veins.
This moment is justly famous because there have been many times when an actor has to refused to play such a scene. Will Smith refused to kiss a man in Six Degrees of Separation, for example. Sarandon rose above this. She has stated on several occasions that the director had wanted Miriam to get Sarah drunk and she asked why she would have to get drunk to want to sleep with Catherine Deneuve???????
Unfortunately the ending of The Hunger makes little sense. But that shouldn't stop viewers from enjoying the rest for its style. The photography is a visual feast and the editing resembles a rock video's. Rent the widescreen edition if possible because the panoramic compositions will greatly suffer on the standard pan & scan videotape.
It's difficult to determine whether director Tony Scott wanted to present a groundbreaking lesbian love scene or if his interests were simply prurient. The Hunger succeeds mostly on the strength of its casting. Deneuve, a cherished lesbian icon since her films with Truffaut, solidified her femme appeal in The Hunger. Bowie is renowned for pushing the gay/bi envelope in his glam rock days as Ziggy Stardust, even though he later denied ever being really gay. Sarandan's sensuality had been used to great effect in films like Atlantic City and Pretty Baby, but to many she will always be remembered as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The presence of these actors brings an unusual sexual dynamic that would surely have been lacking in the hands of other performers.
Interview With The Vampire is an ambitious film that delves into matters such as the nature of God and explores the pyschological make-up of a vampire. It is the stronger of the two films, but The Hunger will be more fun at a Halloween party. Both can be rented at video stores everywhere.
On Susan Sarandon