A Filmmaker's Guide to the Horror Techniques Used in 'Interview with the Vampire'
Study, Experience, and Analysis
(Note: this article covers analysis on the film Interview with the Vampire, if you would like the best insight it is recommended that you watch the entire film at least once).
When we talk about horror filmmaking the lack of conversation on Interview with the Vampire is upsetting because it's such a beautiful film. Not so much the visual effects of the horror, but the effects of how the horror is made are very important. Again, it's not like The Conjuring Universe but it has the same importance in the way in which it has been made. Horror is less seen in this film and more induced, so without too much conversation, let's begin.
The three main themes we will cover are:
- Space and Depth
When we talk about "appearance," we are talking specifically about the appearance of characters. We will cover set appearances in the "atmosphere" section. Here are the character appearance we will focus on and analyse:
(As these are the two focal characters)
We will be analysing what they look like and why they are designed the way they are. It's quite a simple process, but it is also so important to create character and yet, so easy to overlook.
There is no doubt that nobody is scared of Brad Pitt unless he's in Kalifornia, then he's terrifying. But the way the character is designed isn't supposed to be scary. Louis is the character we are supposed to feel empathy towards. The fact that Louis has to be conventionally "attractive" is a point of interest because he requires people to like him. His personality sure doesn't do that: he complains about everything even though he has it much better than most people, he doesn't choose to get help but instead wastes everything he has and finally, he's a slave owner on an agricultural plot of land.
Let's have a look at Louis portrayal of his own appearance and how this comes off on the film's events:
The first thing we are supposed to notice about Louis is how pale his skin is and, because of the darker colours he's wearing, this is exemplified. He has dark hair as well, unlike Lestat who is blonde. Louis dresses himself in the most extravagant clothing, his status even before being a vampire was also quite high, but he seems to dress better and have more confidence as an actual vampire.
The second thing you notice about him (if you've watched the entire film and looked at some good frames) is that he is almost always perpetually discontented. He turned into a vampire in order to gain happiness. He gained confidence, but no happiness and the whole story of this film is basically the false gratification and tragedy of Louis. This is put forward through his inability to be truly happy, he never really smiles through the film and he keeps a very straight face. This is unlike other characters who seem to be over-the-top with their emotions.
Sometimes we notice how his eyes stand out because of the colour of the surrounding area complimenting his complexion so well. Like in this frame:
The fact that Louis mostly has his facial expressions shown in the focal point of the frame means that the audience can take a better look at him than they could before he was a vampire. For portraying this character, it's all about showing to what extent the change has taken place; and the more far-fetched the better.
Here's a tip: notice the use of colour. The material almost matches his eye colour. This is a good method to use for making the eyes stand out more. Of course the dark clothes and porcelain complexion do it as well, but the material shows us exactly what colour it is and makes the eyes stand out. Again, it shows the change. It's all about making sure the audience understand how big the change was and the easiest way to do that is through appearance.
Let's have a look at him in a slightly less formal dress and less threatening situations:
In this frame the first thing we notice is how normal (compared to his usual requests) Louis is dressed. The dark colours are gone and notice how he doesn't look as threatening because of the white shirt and a calm green waistcoat. It's not like in the first frame when he's wearing blacks and golds and looks porcelain white. Instead, he looks like a normal human being, if you look closer you will probably notice by his face that this is not true.
It shows how the character design can be manipulated to be able to fit every situation in which the character requires to look "different," "normal" and even, in some cases "threatening."
Lestat is one of those characters we are unsure of whether to sympathise with, which is also why you'll notice that his facial appearance doesn't change as much as Louis'. We're supposed to know that Lestat is very used to being a vampire and therefore, he is merciless. This also explains the colour of his hair to make his complexion not stand out as much as Louis' with his darker hair.
Lestat is the protagonist and the antagonist as, even though he may be the unconventional "baddie" if this particular film, the entire Vampire Chronicles Series is actually the stories and tales of The Vampire Lestat. Lestat is a confusing character, but if we concentrate on him without context, he can be ever so slightly confusing as a line he repeats more than once is "I'm going to give you the choice I never had..."
Let's have a look at some frames concerning his appearance:
This frame is taken from the end scene of the film and shows Lestat looking very different from how we've known him in the film. Here, Lestat looks almost perfectly normal for the time in which he was existing. Apart from his teeth, there is nothing that stands out about him, not even his clothes.
Of course, the dark clothes across the dark background are there to make the lamplight give his face more of a human complexion, but we can still assume that he looks far more human than Louis does.
Let's have a look at a frame earlier on in the film in order to illustrate this and see what we can find out about Lestat's character from what he wears:
In this frame, we can see Lestat looks remarkably different to frame one, even though this frame is taken earlier on in the film. First, we see his complexion is much lighter, mainly because in this frame there is no lamplight but instead, another, much larger, artificial light source.
We also notice his appearance takes less of a 70s/80s villain and more of a French Nobleman. This tells us exactly who he is and, when we move through the film, we will naturally see his appearance change.
Here's a tip: giving a large and wider spread light to the frame gives a more accurate view of the complexion to the audience. In order to exemplify how pale the vampires are, have the light source spread when they are looking their palest. It will seem more realistic than making them almost luminous in the dark; this cannot be achieved by any skin colour.
Let's have a look at another frame:
Here we see Lestat in his usual dress throughout the film. Again, he dresses like a French Nobleman. The colours he wears are mostly different to the colours worn by Louis; Louis tends to wear darker colours and Lestat is slightly lighter with them.
Lestat wears a dark blue, but notice how most of what he's wearing is white. This is for the effect of making his skin look slightly more coloured and not as pale as the vampire would be.
Notice again the focused lighting, probably by a lamp, to give Lestat his very normal appearance. In the previous frame, we saw what happened when the light source was wide, but when the light source is focused, it gives a hue to something.
You can practice this by looking at shining a torch on to the scene or by using a dimmer switch on a lamp in order to create the desired effect. But, it is most effective when you cannot see the light source in frame, because then it is far more difficult to analyse.
Let's move on to talking about the theme of atmosphere in which we will have a look more at the set and style of things:
Now, when we look at atmosphere, we're looking at how the whole scene comes together to produce this sense of danger and darkness. The key to this is to have a set that balances the light and dark well. Too light and you'll lose the atmosphere; too dark and you'll not be able to see the scene at all. Interview with the Vampire noticeably does this with artificial light sources matching the time period it is set in, and on some occasions, it uses natural lighting (but it's more rare).
Let's have a look at the frame above:
First, you want to notice the placement of characters. Lestat and his prey are in the centre of the frame with Lestat slightly to the left of the screen, right of the scenery. This is quite effective for getting the characters to catch the light from either side.
For example: if they were too close to a single light source, it may throw too much light on to them and you'll lose the atmosphere created within the darkening atmosphere of the characters. This would be done by having a sufficient (but not over the top) light source directly above them. The light source above them is the same light source that lights the table with this golden hue. We can assume that in this case, it is a chandelier of candles.
Then, we need to look at the way in which the "time" of the film is created. If you look at the decor and the objects in the scene, you should be able to notice it is not of this century.
The unfamiliarity of the century mixed with the ominous candlelights that throw shadows everywhere make the scene look darker and more frightening than it actually is.
Here's a tip: it may sound really simplistic, but many films still get this wrong even though many people are working on them.
3. Space and Depth
There is a great amount of space and depth in the frames of Interview with the Vampire as the grandeur of the interior must be created by the sheer size of where the vampires are.
Take a look at this frame which includes many things you could use in your own project.
The first thing we notice is the way in which the bed behind Louis creates depth. The sheer depth of the bed makes the room Louis and Claudia are in look bigger than it actually may be by creating that amount of depth. Even though we don't see how far in front of the bed Louis is sitting, we can tell how far back the bed might go and therefore, creates a good amount of depth in the room.
The second thing we notice is where Claudia is standing. She is standing out of focus next to one of the bedposts; unusually, she's standing next to the one that's closest to Louis but it's still fairly far away. The fact she's slightly out of focus makes it look further away than it actually is. If you want to see how close the bedpost is to Louis all you have to do is put your hand over Claudia and it seems much closer to him.
Here's a tip: a slightly out of focus character in the close background can make them look further away, but if you overuse this technique, it will become annoying to your audience as it will become hard to see a lot of these parts. Use once or twice in the film is far more effective.
The third thing we notice is how far apart the bedposts are and yet, they are still not on either sides of the frame entirely. This creates the sense of size. You will find that if you were to remove this bed from the frame, then the frame would look a lot smaller than it actually is. The bed is of a light colour and it takes up a lot of this dark scenery, and light coloured objects create space.
Here's a tip: you could play around with using large light-coloured objects like beds and tables in the scenery to make the scene look a bit bigger. Darker colours will create depth, but make the scene look slightly smaller.
The last thing we'll look at is the space in which Claudia is standing. There is no light source in that space and so, it is in this pitch black darkness. This creates the depth of the scene that happens past the bed. We assume by this darkness that this part of the building must be quite big because of the two ways in which depth is shown. However, if you look on the other side of the bed, you can see a small light source, which takes away from this depth. The purpose of this is to show the audience where the bed is placed in the room; in this case it seems to be in the middle.
Here's a tip: if your character is slightly out of focus and yet, they are in a dark space, you require a small light source or a natural light source that throws some sort of light on to them as if you do not, it will become difficult for the audience to see what's going on.
There are many, many ways in which Interview with the Vampire creates the atmosphere and image for horror. If you wanted to explore this in more depth, you could use the following themes:
- Light Sources and Darkness
- The Images of Pain
- Metaphors for Suicide
Good luck on your next project!