The Fascinating Mess That Was Queen Of The Damned
I remember having a fairly poor opinion of the 2002’s Queen Of The Damned when I first saw it in theaters twenty years ago. So transparently cobbled together by studio executives, it had little regard to whether it functioned as a cohesive film. Mega-producer Joel Silver pretty much had carte blanche after The Matrix, and part of me is almost kicking myself for not touching on this film in more detail when I wrote about the Silver’s bastard children of The Matrix. Warner Bros. had to have known that this film would stand in stark contrast to their more successful adaptation of Anne Rice’s work, Interview With The Vampire. That film was a meditative and introspective character study with touches of gothic horror, that nevertheless maintained the swagger of a prestige period drama. By comparison, the film adaptation of Queen Of The Damned was a product of its time, undoubtedly to a fault.
Of course, it’s important to understand and acknowledge the landscape of cinema, but also popular culture in the early 2000s. Films catering to teenagers and young adults specifically dominated the multiplexes, especially within the genre of horror and anything horror adjacent. Scream blew the doors open for a slew of teen-based slashers and supernatural films that lasted halfway into the first decade of the new millennium. Shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and it’s spin-off Angel were revitalizing audiences’ interest in vampire fiction. Young goths and other counter-culture individuals were discovering the works of Anne Rice as well. Naturally, Warner Bros. wanted to capitalize on this, not to mention maintain the rights to Rice’s novels before they expired and reverted back to her.
The result was a film that was such a drastic shift in tone, aesthetic, and purpose, that few could fault anyone who felt disappointed by the end product. Despite arguably not even worth acknowledging as a sequel to Interview With The Vampire, Queen Of The Damned picked up where that story left off, as Lestat awakened from a century of slumber after discovering the music of a band playing in his old home. Blissfully imposing himself on them, they rebranded themselves as ‘The Vampire Lestat’, and swiftly took over popular music before the end of the opening credits of the film. It’s honestly flabbergasting how much the film managed to revolve around this idea without truly exploring it in any way that was legitimately meaningful.
At times, Queen Of The Damned felt as though it even didn’t know what it wanted to be, or who should be the focal character, for that matter. Was it Lestat, who I guess decided to become a rock star to work out his vampire daddy issues? Was it Jesse, the figurative equipment manager of the Talamasca, a secret society that observes and records the existence of vampires, but never interferes? She was also apparently raised by a vampire, but the film treated this aspect of her character as painfully anecdotal as possible. Was it the character for which this film was even named; the literal mother of all vampires, who didn’t even show up until after the halfway point of the film, and only truly factored into the story during the third act? Bear in mind, this movie is only an hour and 45 minutes long . . . with credits.
Queen Of The Damned didn’t just live in the early aughts era of nu-metal and glossy MTV-style editing and cinematography. It was constricted by it. No more apparent was this than the Death Valley concert scene, in which rock star Lestat is besieged by a group of vampires, upset that he refuses to hide his true nature from the world. It’s not just that this scene devolved into one of the most poorly constructed Matrix-inspired fight scenes of the 2000s. It’s not just the fact that for all the talk about vampires not wanting to be exposed, they had no problem literally flying through the massive audience to reach Lestat’s performance stage, with the intent of executing him . . . IN PUBLIC. More than anything, it’s the fact that someone responsible for approving the costume designs looked at vampires dressed in urban streetwear, paired with theater capes from Spirit Halloween, and said, “This’ll work!”.
The film could also be a frustrating watch for those with little tolerance in regards to its inability to even take its own subject matter seriously, from scene to scene. Queen Of The Damned plays things straight for the most part, however there are times when it operates almost like a spoof of the vampire genre in general. Much of this is due to Stuart Townsend’s borderline comical performance as Lestat, playing him like someone struggling to simultaneously impersonate Bela Legosi and Gary Oldman. The film somehow manages to overcomplicate vampires as a concept in a variety of ways, while also not doing nearly enough at the same time. The visualization of how they move at high speeds is needlessly complex, yet the makeup for almost every vampire looks just like that . . . makeup. The impression it gives is that every vampire in existence cakes on this pale foundation themselves before venturing into the night.
I’m sure there are large numbers of moviegoers with comparable disdain for Dracula 2000, but I would argue that that film had a measurably stronger vision in terms of presenting as classic an element of horror as vampires through the lens of youth culture in this particular era. There was a consistency to its self-aware tone, with a balance of camp and schlock that carried through the entire film, and never feels embarrassed. Conceptually, this and Queen Of The Damned are not entirely dissimilar, however the latter stood at odds with what it could adapt from Anne Rice’s novels, and a target audience it didn’t entirely understand.
If I may be afforded yet another allusion to MTV, Queen Of The Damned almost feels like a pilot for a series that would be run on said network, much in the same vein as their episodic adaptations of properties like Teen Wolf and Scream. It felt like a broad sampling of ideas and themes without committing to any of it, at that moment. The irony being that the producers’ and filmmakers’ idea to smoosh two Anne Rice books together to make one film was born out of the feeling that the novels The Vampire Lestat and Queen Of The Damned were too episodic for either to work singularly in a cinematic setting.
With all this said, there is no denying that Queen Of The Damned made a few inspired choices. While I was never a fan of the band Korn, using their front man, Jonathan Davis, as the singing voice for Lestat was kind of brilliant. Davis provided music for the film with Richard Gibbs, including a handful of original songs, and all of them still slap to this day. I am literally singing “Forsaken” in my head as I type this article, and I will not allow your judgment to touch my soul. There was a weight and drama to these songs that perfectly fit Lestat as a character, sometimes feeling incredibly operatic. The depth and range of the vocals was propulsive. Of course the only hitch in all this was that under Davis’ pre-existing music contract, he technically could not appear on the soundtrack. The solution? Enlist other nu-metal artists like Marilyn Manson, Disturbed’s David Draiman and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennigton to cover the songs for the soundtrack. This ultimately worked so well, it could have easily been an organically developed concept.
Of course there is no discussing Queen Of The Damned without discussing Aaliyah as Queen Akasha. The pantheon of popular black vampires may be few and far between, but no matter how much the overall film may have failed, there would always be a space made for this complete and utter “force of nature”-style performance. Character introductions don’t go harder than this, as far as I’m concerned. How are you just gonna tongue-kiss a stranger, rip his heart out, suck the blood from it, then start immolating everyone in a private vampire bar?! This was that biblical savagery they were talking about in the Old Testament. Relatively new to acting, Aaliyah made the role of Akasha her own, effortlessly imbuing her with sex appeal and ferocity. From the way she moved to the way she smiled, so much of that character is presented to the audience through sheer body language alone. Truly a shame that she never got to see the impact this role would have, tragically dying in a plane crash, six months before Queen Of The Damned would see release. One might think those who love this character and Aaliyah’s performance are influenced by her loss, but I firmly believe that she showed immense promise, and the potential for her to dominate film as well as popular music was most certainly present.
Is Queen Of The Damned a terrible film? No. And if we’re being perfectly honest, it never was. At worst, it’s a film one might categorize as being woefully misguided. It’s certainly a fascinating film that, dare I say, still ultimately succeeds in being entertaining in spite of itself. Even with its haphazard assembly of conflicting ideas, the strength of Aaliyah’s performance and the music do what they can to pierce through the muck. It is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, and I’m willing to bet there are more of you out there that still have a confession to make. Come out, come out . . . wherever you are.