Retrospective

20 years ago, Aaliyah made a cult classic that almost ruined vampire movies forever

Vastly inferior to Interview with the Vampire before it, this clunky sequel isn't without its strange charms

“A bad idea… a doomed project… I think any respectable script writer would be crazy to tackle that novel without having fully developed the background story of Lestat.”

It’s fair to say that Anne Rice wasn’t initially on board with Warner Bros.’ decision to bypass almost the entire second part of her Vampire Chronicles saga and instead tackle the third novel.

The legendary novelist made her feelings clear in a 1998 post about the impending production of Queen of the Damned. And yet the studio, who believed that predecessor novel The Vampire Lestat was far more suited to television, shrugged off the criticism.

Rice had been similarly disgruntled during the making of Interview with the Vampire, the 1994 dramatization of her debut novel, with Tom Cruise’s casting the major source of her wrath. The writer had reportedly wanted British thespian Julian Sands to take on the starring role but was overruled by execs looking for a household name. Rice described their choice as “so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work,” and even tried to convince them to swap Cruise’s Lestat with Brad Pitt’s Louis.

But Rice had been forced to eat humble pie after seeing the finished product (“from the moment he appeared, Tom was Lestat for me”), even offering an apology to the man she’d so publicly dismissed. And it looked as though another major U-turn was on the cards when she was asked about the progress of its follow-up in the summer of 2001.

Akasha (Aaliyah) in her most understated attire. Warner Bros.

While she’d been adamant that Interview had appointed the wrong leading man, Rice was practically effusive about his replacement, acknowledging that Stuart Townsend had nailed Lestat’s “feline grace” and “excellent speaking voice.” And she had little problem with Warner Bros. capitalizing on her name to promote the movie once she’d seen his performance on the big screen.

But fickleness knows no bounds and, perhaps burned by Queen of the Damned’s negative critical response and middling box-office returns (it only just clawed back its $35 million budget), Rice had reverted to bad-mouthing a year after its 2002 release. Had her pride and joy really been “mutilated,” as she claimed to her Facebook followers? Or was this simply a case of an author being overly-precious?

Well, even Queen of the Damned’s director appears to believe it’s the former. In an oral history of the film for Vulture nearly two decades on, Michael Rymer admitted that he’d said sorry to Rice for failing to capture the spirit of her original story (“I don’t think I’ve got your book on film at all”).

Marius (Vincent Perez) lovingly gazing (or not) at Lestat (Stuart Townsend). Warner Bros.

It’s hard to disagree. Several key plot points are entirely ignored, including the plan to massacre 90 percent of the world’s male population. There’s also a complete erasure of Lestat’s bisexuality; although there are homoerotic undertones in his relationship with his maker Marius (Vincent Perez), the vampire is only ever seen lusting after women.

Yet while the narrative, which centers on Lestat’s attempts to bring the vampire underworld out into the open, ranges from the sacrilegious to the downright incoherent, Queen of the Damned isn’t entirely without merit.

Townsend, who’d edged out the likes of Heath Ledger, Ryan Reynolds, and Wes Bentley for the role, is magnetic as a bloodsucker awoken from a decades-long slumber by the sounds of a Korn-esque rock band (the flashy visuals and constant fast cuts often make the film resemble an extended MTV2 promo).

Channeling Jim Morrison with his tousled hair, tight leather clothing, and bare chest, his Lestat convinces just as much as a rock star as he does a vampire, particularly during a desert concert impressively filmed, not with CGI, but in front of 5,000 of Melbourne’s finest goth extras. You can understand why Rice was so enamored.

Lestat and Akasha engaging in some American Beauty cosplay. Warner Bros.

However, it’s the co-star with barely 10 minutes of screen time that’s given the film a much longer shelf life. Sporting an elaborate headdress and piercing black eyes, Aaliyah steals the show every time she literally slithers into frame as the villain, one who also stirs from her marble statue state thanks to the apparently irresistible sound of industrial metal. A bar scene where she feasts on a vampire’s heart before turning all the other patrons into blazing fireballs memorably sets the tone for her character.

Queen of the Damned was supposed to cement the R&B star’s transition into acting (roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Sparkle reportedly awaited). But a fatal plane crash just six months after filming wrapped meant that ancient Egyptian Akasha would be her final performance.

It’s a shame Aaliyah’s role is so limited (you have to wait until the 50-minute mark to see her thrilling entrance), as the movie suffers whenever she and Townsend are absent. A subplot involving Marguerite Moreau as a paranormal researcher with a vampire lineage sparks little intrigue, and Paul McGann is similarly wasted as her joyless mentor.

Performances aside, the movie is a mess of a mash-up that isn’t camp enough to be enjoyable nonsense yet is too camp to be taken seriously. It’s therefore understandable, especially considering Warner Bros. rejected her offer to adapt the script herself for essentially free, why Rice didn’t want to be damned by association.

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