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Queen of the Damned

Director: Michael Rymer
Cast: Stuart Townsend, Aaliyah, Marguerite Moreau, Vincent Perez, Lena Olin

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 22 Feb 2002; 2002)

Scores to settle

Late in Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah makes her grand entrance. As Akasha, the “queen of all who are damned” to eternal night and grueling solitude and such, she enters a nightclub. Here she’s confronted by a group of underground, pasty white, goth-rocker vampire kids are hanging out, avoiding the daylight, and watching a loud, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-looking music video by one of their own, the Vampire Lestat (Stuart Townsend). But while the kids like Lestat’s music, they hate that he’s a star, because it puts a crimp in their super-secret, underground, pasty white, goth-rocker vampire lifestyle.


The majestic Akasha, by contrast, likes Lestat because he’s like her. She likes his nerve, celebrity, and excessiveness (he consumes two female groupies per night and even appears regularly on tv, though I’m not quite sure how that works because I thought that vampires couldn’t be photographed… clearly I’m behind on the modern lore). So, while the other vampires are plotting to kill Lestat, Akasha decides to make him her consort, so they can be famous rock stars (read: monstrous bloodsucking freaks) together.


First, though, she has to complete that grand entrance. And of course, no one can look away from her: she looks fabulous. After flashing her sharp-toothy grin and blue contact lenses for all to slaver over, Akasha sashays across the dance floor, in a slowed-down, drag-queeny, ultra-sinuous, “Are You That Somebody” video kind of way. (The movie’s audience on the night I saw the film gasped, clapped, then laughed out loud: this is one audacious and perverse performance.)


Akasha also draws attention because, and this is n small thing, everyone in the place is very, very white (at least until she starts killing them, at which point an anonymous black guy with a ‘70s-style fro shows up, just in time to be slaughtered). Her attacks are appropriately horrific—she reaches into one guy’s chest and hauls out his heart, then bites into it, her lips smacking and dripping extra-red blood. Eeewww. Afterwards, Akasha takes a less hands on approach, zapping all comers with cosmic fire, so they sizzle away into digitized ashes. Cut to the club’s exterior as a few flaming vampires come flying out the club door.


This is a weirdly potent image, illustrating that Akasha has turned the ages-old (vampire) “outing” anxiety on its ear. Her resistance to such closetedness apparently has deep roots. Back in ancient Egypt when she was queen (and mother of all vampires), she and hubby shared a brutal reign, known to all: she was one messy, mean, and aggressive vampiric chick. For reasons best known to scholars (or at least, not revealed in Queen of the Damned), this system didn’t work out, and Akasha and her king were condemned to centuries-long slumber. In the meantime, those vampires still walking the earth work out an extremely bizarre, if largely unspoken, deal with mortals: vampires will stay mostly silent and hidden away, and a few disposable humans will serve as food. They also—apparently—agree that they will all adopt a hugely corny, part French, part-fang-enhanced, part Bela-Lugosi-ish accent, so as to mark their difference from humans: by the end of the film, you’re hopping they’ll all die out just to rid the world of their dismal inflections (“Vee have a score to settle!” or, “Dis is vie vee must fight Akasha!”)


The change in this mortals-vamps bargain comes with big-mouthed, self-loving Lestat, who (not unlike Blade‘s upstart, next-generational vampire Frost) decides that he wants to live as Akasha used to back in ancient Egypt—out. There are limits to his conception of being “out,” however. It’s well known to anyone who has seen the Tom Cruise incarnation of Lestat (in 1994’s Interview with a Vampire), read an Anne Rice novel, or been even had a brief run-in with Anne Rice’s prodigious promotional apparatus, that Lestat (like most vampires, actually), is omnisexual, which is something like bisexual, only moreso. Not only was Lestat “made” by a male vampire, Marius (here played by Vincent Perez), but he will also suck anything that moves. In this film, however, once he does come “out,” he is decidedly “straight,” for a vampire, anyway.


As if to show why he wants to be straight, Queen shows Lestat’s education in things vampiric, where he learns that being “known” by mortals is a no-no (and where he also exhibits his interest in mortal girls—very upsetting to Marius). As his father/teacher/lover, Marius is increasingly alarmed by Lestat’s inability to follow the rules, especially when the younger vampire initiates the process of reawaking Akasha (that Marius is jealous of Lestat’s hunger for her delirious-making blood/sex is also quite obvious). At this point, Marius chains his student/lover to the bed (lots of writhing and innuendo here) and takes the as-yet-still-dormant Akasha away, leaving poor Lestat to sleep in his coffin, selfishly mourning his own loneliness, for, oh I don’t know, centuries.


And this is actually where Queen begins (what I’ve detailed above comes in its lengthy flashback structure), as Lestat is awakened by the crashing sound of Korn, or something like it: Korn’s Jonathan Davis scored the film and has a brief cameo as a ticket scalper (please note: because of contract “issues,” the WB soundtrack cd does not feature Korn, but covers of Davis’s songs by Manson, Godhead, Static-X, Papa Roach, etc). Here he has a brainstorm, deciding that he can feel less isolated in the world if he’s a rock star (clearly, he doesn’t watch MTV Diary and read those autobiographies documenting the dire loneliness of the rock star’s life). And so Lestat conscripts a band and becomes a star. Minutes later, he’s about to perform in Death Valley, a one-time-only show that generates all kinds of raucous tabloidish publicity, and inspires his fellow vampires, the ones who want to remain underground, to come kill him.


Sadly, this plot device of Lestat’s instantaneous fame leaves out a lot of what might have been interesting to see—his negotiations with record labels, his Rolling Stone cover shoot—but it does suggest that mimicking Trent Reznor takes little time to master: his rock star moment on the Death Valley stage is predictably outsized, mic-stand clutching, and wholly unimpressive, save for the bullet-time special effects when he’s attacked on stage by a series of angry vamps. The other major missed opportunity in the film is Akasha as “rock star”: she appears at the Death Valley show, but only to whisk Lestat straight up in to the sky, away from the clutches of his enemies, and so, disappointingly, Aaliyah sings not a note, and is left only with 3 or 4 scenes in which she must utter silly, exclamation-pointed dialogue through her big false teeth (for example, concerning her enemies: “It varms my blood to see you all gathered, plotting against me!”, or concerning the dozens of corpses she leaves up and down a beach: “Dey believed in nothing and now dey are nothing!”)


Lestat, for his part, is less than convinced that he wants to emulate Akasha—he’s alarmed by her voracity, which far exceeds his own (whether or not this has anything to do with her being a sexy black women, whereas every other vampire with an actual speaking part is very, very white—well, that may be best left to individual viewers’ imaginations). Lestat’s tentativeness gets a boost from two sources: the first and lesser is Marius, who still carries a torch for his former partner, and the second and more formidable is a human girl, Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau, of the entirely forgettable Wet Hot American Summer). She’s a researcher at London’s Talamansca Institute for Paranormal Studies, which is to say, she’s into vampires (lucky for Lestat, I suppose, who lusts after her mortal vulnerability and pretty white neck and breasts).


There’s a backstory-type reason for Jesse’s interest in Lestat, having to do with spooky dreams about her childhood and her long absent, much missed, bloody-tear-crying aunt Maharet (Lena Olin), who, you’ll guess right away, is a vampire, though somehow Jesse the vampire researcher misses this minor detail. And, neatly, Jesse’s “little obsession” with Lestat parallels that of her own mentor, David (Paul McGann), with Marius. There is, perhaps, something to say about the film’s suggestion that, after the film’s primary, most valued couple (Lestat and Jesse), the least threatening pairing is homosexual (Marius and David), rather than interracial (Lestat and Akasha). But then again, maybe there’s not.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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