The second film adaptation of author Anne Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles," the only major carry-over in "Queen of the Damned" from 1994's "Interview with the Vampire" is the lead character of the Vampire Lestat (played in director Neil Jordan's opus by Tom Cruise, and here by Stuart Townsend). With that said, only cursory knowledge of who Lestat is is needed to understand and get involved in "Queen of the Damned," stylishly directed by Michael Rymer (1999's "In Too Deep"). The film has recently gotten much press as the late singer-actress Aaliyah's second, and final, film role (at only 22, she died tragically last year in a plane crash). Luckily, the picture has more going for it than just this unfortunate fact and, if the movie doesn't transcend its source material, it still stands as a rare, satisfying diversion into the world of vampires.
Set in present day California, Lestat awakens from his tomb and immediately decides to come "out," a cardinal sin in vampirism, turning himself overnight into a media star and a wildly successful goth rocker. His sudden popularity attracts the attention of Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a young student of the occult who stumbles upon Lestat's journal and subsequently becomes fascinated and attracted to him. What Lestat does not anticipate is the resurrection of Akasha (Aaliyah), powerful queen of the vampires, who has plans of joining forces with Lestat and ruling the world. Meanwhile, a group of vampires plan to make their attack on Lestat at his upcoming concert in the Mojave Desert for revealing himself to the public.
Stood up against "Interview with the Vampire," "Queen of the Damned" is smaller in scale, has fewer big-name actors, and lacks the depth and insight of its predecessor. What it lacks in these areas, however, it somewhat compensates for with a dazzling style that transforms the ace camerawork by cinematographer Ian Baker (1997's "Fierce Creatures") into the film's most exciting attraction. With atmospheric, eye-grabbing aerial shots that make the most of its swooping camera, Baker singlehandedly turns the proceedings into a visually extraordinary experience.
Less noteworthy is the one-dimensional story that, while intriguing, has seemingly been stripped to its barest essentials for the screen. Having not read Anne Rice's "The Vampire Lestat" or "Queen of the Damned" (both of which have been combined for this cinematic entry), the plot still seemingly rushes through elements that might have strengthened the narrative, particularly Lestat's rise to rock star idol and Akasha's mysterious link to Jesse's Aunt Maharet (Lena Olin). It would be interesting to see the material that found its way to the cutting room floor, because more backstory could have only helped.
The performances are a mixed bag. Stuart Townsend (2001's "About Adam") does an interesting take on the Vampire Lestat, even if he is no Tom Cruise. Still, he fills such big shoes with reasonable aplomb, and is alluringly good-looking enough to believably prove why everyone would be so mesmerized by him. Marguerite Moreau (2001's "Wet Hot American Summer"), however, seems miscast as Jesse, although her uneven turn may just be a result of her character's slim development. Vincent Perez (2001's "Bride of the Wind"), as Marius, the vampire who turned Lestat into what he has become hundreds of years ago, has some memorable moments, but isn't on hand enough for much more.
With much of the audience that turns out for "Queen of the Damned" strictly coming to see Aaliyah (2000's "Romeo Must Die") in her final film appearance, she does not disappoint. While she is more of a supporting character than the title and ads would suggest, not making her first appearance until the halfway point, and only reappearing for the third act, she completely takes hold of Akasha and makes the commanding character her own. The one downfall of her standout performance (admittedly the best in the whole film) is the clear glimpse of a wonderfully talented actress in the making. Seeing the movie now, and knowing what her fate in real life became, makes the loss of her even more poignant, and a little depressing.
As a horror film, "Queen of the Damned" fails miserably. Not for a single moment is anything even remotely frightening or suspenseful. But as a large-scale vampire tale, director Rymer succeeds in creating one of the most shockingly erotic ones to come around in some time. Whether it was his intention or not to make "Queen of the Damned" a pro-vampire flick, that's what it is. Who knew being one of the undead could come off seeming so sexually bewitching?
©2002 by Dustin Putman