Queen of the Damned (2002)


“And can music save your mortal soul?” Well, no, at least not in Michael Rymer’s Queen of the Damned. Here, rock and roll is seductive and evil, and leads only to damnation (as if to suggest that Tipper Gore never knew how right she was). The primary vampire in the film — Lestat (Stuart Townsend) — is, in fact, a rock star. After a hiatus of many years, spent sleeping away in his crypt, he finds his slumber disturbed by some new sound in the air. “The world,” he says, “sounded different, better.” Cue up the Korn.

The reason Lestat retreated from the world of mortals and vampires to begin with was loneliness. Vampires, you see, can never be known by mortals, and the price for any such familiarity is a bloody death (for the humans, vampires already being dead). Vampires can hang around with other vampires, but after a few centuries, these companions apparently grow tedious. This is the lesson Lestat learns from Marius (Vincent Perez of Crow: City of Angels, who took over the role of the Crow after Brandon Lee was killed on the set of the first film), the ancient vampire who made him.

When Lestat is awakened by the sound of neo-metal/goth/industrial music, he decides that this is the vehicle by which he will cure his loneliness. Not only will he gain millions of adoring fans, but he will also challenge all the other vampires who insist on staying hidden from the world, to come join him. This is where Queen of the Damned comes closest to acknowledging the queerness and homoerotics of Rice’s books and vampire lore generally.

At a press conference leading up to a “live” performance by his band (named “The Vampire Lestat”) in Death Valley, Lestat answers reporters’ question via satellite. When queried about being a vampire, and whether vampires are supposed to keep their identities hidden, Lestat responds: “Why hide in this day and age? I’ve hidden myself for centuries.” He then issues his challenge to vampires around the world: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” Lestat’s primary target here is the “queen of all who are damned,” the mother of all vampires and all-purpose bad-ass girl, Akasha (Aaliyah), once queen of Egypt and object of interest for the ever-transgressive Lestat.

His overstepping the boundaries of vampire ethics and his egotistical preening and posturing on stage and in public, come to a head at the Death Valley concert, which turns into a bloodsuckers’ battle royale. There’s something more than a little obvious about the vampire Lestat as goth rock superstar. From Bauhaus and Peter Murphy solo, to Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, goth rock, in all its permutations, has always dallied with various monstrous, satanic, and vampiric stylistics. In fact, as Lestat, Townsend looks and sings like some amalgamation of all these goth rock gods. Maybe this lack of originality is the point: Lestat succeeds precisely because of the precedents set by Murphy, Manson, Reznor, et. al. That doesn’t make it any less tired. There is also something more than obvious about Queen of the Damned‘s commentary on the vampiric nature of fame. Celebrities, rock stars especially, “feed off” the adulation of their fans, as well as off sex, drugs, and excesses of all sorts.

It isn’t, however, only cliches and obviousness that damn Queen of the Damned. Add to this the fact that the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and its fate is sealed. This is most obvious in the plot concerning Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) and her aunt Maharet (Lena Olin). There is some dark secret in their family that, even when “revealed,” is never explained very well. Or, the reason for this family’s vital import to the continuation of the vampire race is totally opaque. Nor do we ever learn why Jesse so readily leaves her position at the Talamansca Institute for Paranormal Studies in order to chase Lestat around the globe and beg him to make her a vampire. Perhaps this makes some sense to Rice fans, but the rest of us will be left wondering. I actually read the books years ago and it still left me puzzled.

Undoubtedly, the reason many will see Queen of the Damned is out of some grisly fascination with or respect for the recently departed Aaliyah. Admittedly, there is something a little bit spooky about watching the deceased singer/actress play the undead queen of the vampires. Her family and lawyers have been sensitive to this possibility, as they protested WB’s advertising campaign featuring Aaliyah as Akasha, with the copy reading, “All she wants is hell on earth.” I’m not sure exactly what was objectionable about this ad, unless it has something to do with the ways in which Aaliyah has been so canonized since her untimely demise, but it certainly has made some of those she left behind very uncomfortable.

Aaliyah is the best, and really the only, reason to see Queen of the Damned. She steals every scene in which she appears — and these are actually few and far between. As Akasha, she’s corrupt, voracious, and totally sexy, as when she leaves the ground littered with the corpses of victims she has drained, and licks her blood-smeared lips as she walks away. Even Aaliyah, however, can’t save the film. It’s a strange day indeed when I find myself longing for Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (which I once thought pretty abysmal), and, perhaps worse, thinking maybe Tom Cruise didn’t do such a bad job after all.