For months, rumors had persisted that “Queen of the Damned,” the screen version of Anne Rice’s novel, was headed straight for video. Now, in the wake of star Aaliyah’s untimely death last August, Warner Bros. has bitten the bullet and unleashed the much-delayed vampire thriller in theatres, and this is a case where bad buzz and diminished expectations have worked in a film’s favor.
Now, don’t get me wrong–“Queen of the Damned” is not a good film, but it’s definitely a watchable one, which is more than I can say about some films the studio has recently released without so much as batting an eyelash (Summer Catch and A Walk to Remember come most immediately to mind). With this belated second screen installment of the adventures of Rice’s vampire Lestat, director Michæl Rymer has made a visually handsome film, nicely designed and intriguingly stylized, particularly in its depiction of the vampire attacks, which are not overly bloody but no less intense for it. Similarly, stars Stuart Townsend (as Lestat) and Aaliyah (as vampire queen Akasha) are definitely are not hard on the eyes.
However, looks, as they say, aren’t everything. “Queen of the Damned” is not so much based on Rice’s third Lestat novel than it is an amalgam of the second (“The Vampire Lestat”) and the third. As such, a number of events and characters are included but explored with little depth and almost as little clarity. After years of solitude in his crypt, Lestat is awakened in 21st century New Orleans by the strains of rock music. Before long, Lestat himself, craving the attention and worship, becomes a music superstar, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone and getting frequent MTV airplay. This doesn’t sit well with his undead brethren, who are incensed by Lestat’s blatant breaking of bloodsuckers’ code of anonymity. Meanwhile, a young woman named Jesse’s (Marguerite Moreau) fascination with Lestat becomes obsession when she reads his journal, which recounts his centuries-ago origin by vampire Marius (Vincent Perez) and his inadvertent awakening of Akasha, mother of all vampires. As Jesse meets and grows closer to Lestat and his big concert date approaches, Akasha and various other vengeful vampires move in for the kill. And I haven’t yet even mentioned Jesse’s family of vampires or the Talamasca, the group of paranormal watchers to which Jesse belongs.
But Rymer isn’t too concerned with all the plot screenwriters Scott Abbott and Michæl Petroni have crammed into “Queen of the Damned.” He’s more interested in striking stylish, sometimes campy, poses, particularly with his two top-billed stars, who certainly are up to that easy task. Townsend exudes predatory pansexual decadence more strongly than Tom Cruise ever did as Lestat in “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,” and he strikes easy sensual sparks with Aaliyah, who clearly relishes the opportunity to literally strut her stuff in her surprisingly limited amount of screen time. As amusing as it may be to watch for a while, such superficial posturing grows old quickly, making for a film that is far less than satisfying. The greatest disappointment, though, is that their talents were largely left untapped in this film–most dismaying, of course, in the case of Aaliyah, who was not given a chance to further build on the promise she displayed in Romeo Must Die. Such a shame that a film as mediocre as “Queen of the Damned” has to serve as her final film legacy.