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Queen of the Damned   D

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Rymer
Writers: Scott Abbott, Michael Petroni (based on a novel by Anne Rice)
Cast: Aaliyah, Stuart Townsend, Marguerite Moreau, Vincent Perez, Lena Olin, Paul McGann, Christian Monon, Claudia Black.

Review by Rob Vaux

Wanker Goths are on the loose! Run for your lives!

The second adaptation of Anne Rice's vaunted Vampire Chronicles touched down with an embarrassing plop this weekend, leaving a visible trail of stink lines in its wake. Vampires remain as popular as ever, but Queen of the Damned botches nearly every approach to them -- horror film, transgressive mediation, even popcorn fun. As a writer, Rice has her share of flaws, but she at least understood the terrible, tragic irony about vampirism. She knew that immortality was far more curse than blessing and that those who partook of it -- even her beloved dark prince, Lestat -- suffered a fate you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Not so this film. Rather than look at the dramatic undercurrents of Rice's characters, it gazes adoringly at the flash and sizzle... to the detriment of everything else. The result is a self-indulgent wet dream, an incoherent power fantasy for people who still think nipple rings are avant-garde. And it has the unmitigated arrogance to ask us to take it seriously.

Lestat first appeared on-screen in Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire, a melancholy, atmospheric piece which did justice to Rice's unhappy monsters. Those who questioned the choice of Tom Cruise in that film will be shocked to see how much worse it gets. Cruise portrayed Lestat as the devil incarnate: his infernal, malevolent charisma destroying everything it touched. Cruise's replacement, Stuart Townsend, can't manage more than a boy-band sneer, replacing genuine evil with shallow poutiness. The film around him reflects a Tiger Beat sensibility, gazing upon Lestat and his ilk with unabashed envy.

After rising from a 100-year slumber, Townsend's would-be bad boy remakes himself as a contemporary rock star. Lestat's image and lyrics break millennia-old taboos, threatening the veil of secrecy vampires have pulled about themselves. He also draws the attention of the Talamasca, a mortal occult organization whose young agent, Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. Most importantly, however, he awakens the ancient sire of the vampire race -- the Egyptian Queen Akasha (Aaliyah), whose ambitions for the world are anything but good.

The novel made great use of this set-up but the movie doesn't have the first idea what to do with it. It crams Rice's mythology into a 100-minute structure with little regard to rhyme or reason. Those unfamiliar with the source material may find themselves baffled... and yet Queen of the Damned remains frustratingly sloppy with the details that appeal to Rice's fans. Indeed, it doesn't want to explore those details. It doesn't want to be troubled with tenets of interesting drama. Oh sure, it pays lip service to the more tragic elements of vampirism -- they have to drink blood, you know, and isn't it awful? -- but it can't really be bothered to look at the story's true purpose or conflicts.

What's worse, Queen of the Damned has no sense of excitement or fun to it. It presents Lestat's world with the reverence of an obsessed stalker, yet it never convinces us why we should be interested. The storyline clunks along with deathly stillness, interrupted by pretentious MTV montages and a few shirtless gyrations from Townsend and company. Characters show up out of the blue to deliver pretentious speeches of the "eternity is ours" variety and then vanish, never to be seen again. Important developments are rattled off as afterthoughts, while the filmmakers depend on a mishmash of voice-overs to somehow keep it all clear. Even the fangs look dime-store fake. And through it all Queen of the Damned insists on keeping a straight face, as if it were a major work of art. The most entertaining moments come when it descends into unintentional camp ("You are bold -- like your music," Akasha purrs to Lestat at one point). By the final reel, you're praying for Wesley Snipes to kick down the door and chop them all into undead sushi.

The most tragic part of Queen of the Damned, however, is that the untimely death of its star gives it a relevance it doesn't deserve. Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash several months ago, was a beautiful young woman with a bright future ahead of her. She deserved a better epitaph than this mess. Rice fans will find Queen of the Damned an affront to their favorite books, while everyone else will need a reason to quit laughing. Rarely have filmmakers shown such a poor understanding of their material. Like any other poser, they fall madly in love with the details... without bothering to ask what they're for.

Review published 02.25.2002.

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