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Anne Rice's novel is transformed into a murky and lifeless film

"Interview with the Vampire" does seem to have discovered something like the secret of eternal life. At least when you leave the theater, you feel as if you've been in it for a thousand years.

Derived from the beloved first novel by mistress of the dark Anne Rice, it unfortunately seems a work primarily intended for Rice Krispies -- that is, people who've already had their brains toasted by reading too much Anne Rice.

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They'll at least get it. The movie's fundamental flaw, from an outsider's point of view, possibly stems from the fact that Rice wrote the screen adaption, under the assumption that her viewers would be familiar with the original text and that her main thrust should be to get as much of the book into the film as possible. But they're not and it's not, and I, for one, found the film extremely murky. Motives are unclear, characters are never defined, the dialogue itself seems poorly recorded and is frequently unintelligible. Why A) happens instead of B) seems entirely arbitrary. The movie sucks the life out of you as you watch it.

It's structured as a long autobiographical flashback. In a room in San Francisco one dark night, a young radio interviewer (Christian Slater in a role originally set for River Phoenix) listens as a chalky-faced but preternaturally young man with a slight Creole accent named Louis (Brad Pitt) tells the story of his life, all 200-odd years worth. He makes no bones about himself: He is the vampire.

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In the book, Louis' 20-decades ramble through history to modern times was unified by his lyric, mesmerizing voice. Director Neil ("The Crying Game") Jordan attempts to replicate that narrative voice with a visual one: His camera work is swoony and languid, the settings are lush and romantic, the cinematography is dialed down toward sultry darkness, the costumes are all velvet and crinoline. But all that is cosmetic. It can't quite cover the fact that the movie tries to tell too much story and frequently moves characters in and out without much in the way of feelings. I never quite got who Stephen Rea was supposed to be, except that he worked for Antonio Banderas at the Theatre des Vampires in Paris in the 1850s. But then, I never quite figured Banderas out either.

Of course the key relationship is homoerotic -- between handsome young Louis and his mentor in plasma, the Vampire Lestat, famously played by Tom Cruise under a blond fright wig that seems to turn him into Jamie Lee Curtis in "Prom Night." What's the deal with Cruise? He wanted this role? The surprise is that he's not at the center of the movie, but at the edges, after seducing then coyly teasing and prodding Pitt along. He doesn't get to do much except twit Pitt, who is the true fulcrum of the plot.

Louis's drama is mostly interior, and has to do with his dilemma over the turn his life took when Lestat treated his neck like a strawberry milkshake. He's the Hamlet of the vampire world, a self-doubting man torn between nascent moral impulses and a newly acquired thirst for blood. But this is one of the themes

Rice's screenplay never fully develops or dramatizes, and it leaves Pitt too often simply feeling sorry for himself and acting depressed. He's the slacker Dracula, and the performance never really comes to life.

Meanwhile, a third pal has joined the party, so that the movie looks like a modern "non-traditional" family -- you know, a child and two daddies. This is Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), whom Lestat rescues from the plague and gives to Louis, in order to bind him to him forever. Of course, what Lestat can't guess is how avidly Claudia will take to the life, and soon she's fighting him for control of the unit. Compared to the two talky pretty boys, she's the kid from hell and her demonism completely dominates the central portion of the film. She even seems to kill Lestat at one point, but as everyone knows, vampires strike back.

In its second half, Lestat disposed of, the movie takes a rushed trip to Europe, where the issue becomes one of vampire politics. Louis and Claudia fall rather too easily in with a gaggle of their peers, who have found a funny way to make a living: They pretend to be fake vampires while actually being real vampires. But for reasons never entirely clear, a certain faction among them, led by the strange Rea, develops an intense dislike for Louis and Claudia. Bloody but impenetrable difficulties soon follow.

For all its vaunted gore and eroticism, "Interview with the Vampire" never comes close to the clammy intensity of some of its less expensive precursors. Tony Scott's "The Hunger," with Susan Sarandon and Catherine Denueve, was at least as good, and several of the queasier Hammer films of the '50s caught the mix more intensely. "Interview with the Vampire" ends up like all too many interviews these days: All talk and little action.

"Interview with the Vampire"

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Starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt

Directed by Neil Jordan

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R

** 1/2


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