`Interview With the Vampire': Ghoulish Film With a Morbid Bite

HORRORS! A new generation of movie monsters is stalking the screen - or rather an old generation, since most of the currently popular creatures come from the same venerable lineage as the original Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, whose exploits have spanned many hits, flops, remakes, and sequels dating back to the early decades of film.

``Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,'' based on the first volume in novelist Anne Rice's best-selling series, comes hot on the heels of ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' directed by Kenneth Branagh with a manic energy that breathes new life into the old story. Both movies are clearly inspired by ``Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed two years ago by Francis Ford Coppola and still the best entry in the 1990s horror sweepstakes.

In terms of old-fashioned gothic horror, ``Interview With the Vampire'' is the creepiest of the three pictures. Coppola and Branagh load their movies with the free-flowing gore that's a staple of the genre, but distract our attention with cinematic stunts having more Tinseltown than Transylvania about them.

By contrast, ``Vampire'' director Neil Jordan plunges us into a dark-toned abyss of predatory evil, revenge, and misogyny, creating a persistently morbid atmosphere that's relieved only by an occasional outburst of unexpected camp. You may chuckle when the centuries-old antihero decides to take in a few movies, or when the story's final shockeroo is accompanied by a blast of cleverly chosen rock and roll. But you may feel outrage rather than cinematic chills when you notice how vicious the picture is toward women.

THE unremitting dankness of ``Interview With the Vampire'' is a reflection of Rice's novel, which relies more on sepulchral mood-spinning than on original plot development or three-dimensional characterization. Readers of the book will recognize almost everything on screen, including the narrative twists that seem designed merely to provide another excuse for hyperbolic suffering and gratuitous gore-mongering.

What the novel's fans may not expect is the manner and appearance of the main characters, Louis and Lestat, as embodied by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise respectively. The picture's public-relations got off to a rocky start when Cruise's participation was first announced, prompting Rice into a widely reported statement that the good-looking star was wildly wrong for a leading role. She has since recanted that position - in yet another statement, this one proudly reprinted in a newspaper ad by the film's distributor - but moviegoers may think she had it right the first time. While he has plenty of his usual handsome charm, Cruise has none of the feral coarseness that characterized Lestat in the novel, where his vampiric career mixed cruelty and crudity in equal measure.

Pitt tackles his part with enthusiasm, but he hasn't acquired the acting skills required by this important role, which carries the picture for long stretches. Other parts are handled with more panache; performers include Christian Slater as the interviewer, Stephen Rea and Antonio Banderas as vampires with a theatrical bent, and Kirsten Dunst as the little girl who becomes a vampire in one of Rice's most outlandishly ghoulish conceits.

Dante Ferretti did the funereal set designs, and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot has managed to capture many striking images with some of the dimmest lighting in memory. Elliot Goldenthal composed the intermittently effective music. Rice wrote the wordy screenplay.

* ``Interview With the Vampire'' is rated R for graphic violence, nudity, and sexual overtones.

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