Michael Rymer’s Queen of the Damned (2002) celebrates its 20th anniversary next week. The film is notable for the breakthrough performance of Aaliyah as the title character Queen Akasha. The rising singer tragically died at age 22 during post-production, with the movie offering only a glimpse of her greater talent. But 20 years on, the movie is most remembered as a famously flawed fright flick follow-up to one of the best vampire movies ever made–a rush job which doomed a promising franchise. It earned its cinematic notoriety because it ignored its natural and unnatural resources.
The late Anne Rice reinvented vampires for a new generation on the page with her extensive series of novels. The immortal bloodsuckers of her Vampire Chronicles book series were provocative, dangerous, and boundary-shattering from the moment Interview with the Vampire was first published in 1976. The film adaptation of the same story was essentially produced due to overwhelming public demand. Directed by Neil Jordan, it was the 10th highest grossing movie of 1994, earning Warner Bros. $223.7 million at the U.S. box office. The film starred three major matinee idols–Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Antonio Banderas–and introduced movie audiences to a young Kirsten Dunst. It was nominated for two Academy Awards.
Major franchises have been birthed from far less. While none of the cast of the modern horror classic were interested in returning for what became a belated sequel, Warner Bros. still had every tool at their disposal to create a new and lasting cinematic mythology.
Immortality Doesn’t Mean a Vampire Movie Has All the Time in the World
A decade passed before the second movie adaptation, Queen of the Damned, would be made, and it was a rush job with a deadline. Warner Bros. had 10 years to produce films based on the first three Vampire Chronicles novels before the rights would have transferred back to Rice, and she could shop them to other studios. WB needed to get something into production by 2000. They waited until the last year.
In that necessitated haste, the creative team didn’t just cut corners, but mangled names, plots, backstories, love stories, and timelines. The film rolled back the nonchalant sexual fluidity Lestat de Lioncourt, played by Stuart Townshend, enjoys on the page by neutering all scenes with male lovers. It appears Marius (Vincent Perez) only turned Lestat into a vampire so they can hang out on a beach munching on traveling musicians and looking fierce. The film Queen of the Damned doesn’t even casually mention Louis de Pointe du Lac, the vampire who is interviewed in Interview with the Vampire.
The sequel should have been an adaptation of Rice’s 1985 book The Vampire Lestat, and one of the missed opportunities is depth of that story. According to Vulture’s oral history of the film, WB believed the second book contradicted the events in the first because Interview with the Vampire is told from the point of view of Louis, and The Vampire Lestat is told from the point of view of Lestat. The final movie doesn’t bother to reconcile the contradictions; it just skips characters and events entirely.
Squeezing Out the Bloody Source
The biggest squandered resource of the production was the author herself. Between the 1994 release of Interview with the Vampire and production for Queen of the Damned, Rice hadn’t only guided her Vampire Chronicles characters into far deeper and more fantastical territory, but unleashed a New Tales of the Vampires book series. Her Lives of the Mayfair Witches novel series was also progressing artfully, and flying off book shelves like brooms from closets. Rice supplied the studio with several ideas for moving the beloved vampire series along, even publicly offering to write a screenplay for free.
Warners also didn’t think the second book was cinematic or exciting enough for a sequel. So focus shifted to her 1988 book The Queen of the Damned. To fulfill the terms of the rights deal, and because the third book doesn’t make any sense without the second, parts of The Vampire Lestat needed to be included in Queen of the Damned. The writers, which did not include Rice, combined plot points from the two novels, fitting more than 1,000 book pages into a 90-minute running time.
Many of the characters were cut, others caught the indignity of appearing in the film with what looks like “under five” actors (extras with a line). Matthew Newton plays the vampire Armand in the film, a character so important Rice named a book after him, The Vampire Armand from 1998. His portrayal is mute but for one or two lines.
The Plot Thins
The film Queen of the Damned follows Lestat, who is woken up from a long self-imposed slumber by the sounds of thrashing guitars and bashing beats of a rock group practicing in his New Orleans estate. An accomplished violinist himself, and having similarly awakened the queen of all vampires in his prime centuries before, Lestat grabs a snack and joins the band. He introduces himself as their new lead vocalist and goes on to introduce the world to its first public vampire. At the very same press conference, he invites all the other bloodsuckers to jam.
Both the vampire community, and the Talamasca occult society which watches them, turn out to be highly critical of the new sounds coming to a one-time Death Valley concert performance. Some go as far as plotting to kill the rock star in front of his adoring fans. But Lestat gains one important supporter: His music wakes Akasha, who kills her immortal consort to make Lestat her king.
The ancient mother of all vampires recognizes Lestat’s malevolence as equal to her own. She lets him feed from her, giving him the power to walk in the sun (although in the book, the first blooded ancient vampires survive the sun, but sleep through it), and prepares to create a new world order where humans are cattle, and corpses litter the landscape.
Lestat plays an infuriating Judas in the end, robbing the mythology of a truly and irrevocably evil character. As in the book, Lestat is something of a hero, saving mankind and weaker vampires.
Ignoring Perfectly Good Origin Stories
The film skips the story of the red-headed vampire twins, which on the page takes us back to the time of Queen Akasha’s original reign as a queen in the pre-Egyptian region called Kemet. Renowned Swedish actor Lena Olin plays the immortal Maharet in the movie, but her sister Mekare is omitted completely. In the book, she is the vampire who kills Akasha by severing her head and consuming her brain and heart, making her the new vampire queen. The film also doesn’t explain the spirit Amel, which possesses vampire royalty, and the Great Family, which keeps it under wraps.
The origin of the secret society, the Order of the Talamasca, is similarly brushed over in the movie, leaving paranormal researcher Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) to function solely as love interest for Lestat.
In the books, Lestat’s maker is a French vampire named Magnus, who abandons him to fend for himself. In the film adaptation, Rice’s beloved antihero is made by Marius de Romanus, the 2,000-year-old illegitimate son of a Roman noble and a Celtic slave. In the film Lestat is angry because he’s got to throw a big rock show in Death Valley to get his maker to come visit. The most pivotal character dropped from the film is Lestat’s lover Nicki. Without his Stradivarius, Lestat could never have awoken Akasha.
Another grievously missed opportunity is Akasha, the title character herself. The Queen who never gives a damn doesn’t show up until the 30-minute mark, and then it’s only to move her stone hand. Her backstory is fast-tracked. Like the Pharaohs, the first vampire was seen as a God-Queen when she ruled over Ancient Egypt with her consort King Enkil. They fed from mortals and other vampires. The mother of all vampires is connected to all vampires, and anything that harms Akasha has dire consequences for her progeny. This information does not rise to any palpable suspense in the film.
Why Won’t You Die?
The film also fails to give the Queen who is awoken by violent violin fingerings the chance to thrash along with those who love to fiddle. The songs for the film were written by Jonathan Davis of Korn, who also performed Lestat’s singing voice in the movie. Because record deals are what they are, Davis was allowed to play instruments, but couldn’t sing on the soundtrack CD. For the album, the five songs written by Davis and Richard Gibbs for the film were sung by Marilyn Manson, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, David Draiman of Disturbed, Wayne Static of Static-X, and Jay Gordon of Orgy.
Lestat’s concert in Death Valley featured 3,000 local goths bused in from Melbourne nightclubs as extras. It is the scene where Lestat and Akasha first reunite in the flesh, and what flesh it is until the skin is torn asunder all over the stage and flying as burnt ash into the desert. The two vampires are center stage, alone together, for a brief moment, before they fly off into the stratosphere, leaving a gaping audience wanting more.
This underscores a very large missed opportunity, one which has nothing to do with the book. Aaliyah’s singing voice should have been captured cinematically. Lestat and Akasha should have sung a duet.
For this writer, the whole film should have been a long-form music video. It makes as much sense as what the finished film ultimately turned into.
Queen of the Damned is now a verified cult classic in its own right, but imagine if it was even more intentionally camped up as a true musical. Half the cast had trouble even getting their lines past the dental prosthetics. If the shackles were lifted from the open sexual adventures the characters enjoyed, a hard rocking musical version could have been on the stratosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Aaliyah was a powerful R&B singer. She was known as the “Queen of Urban Pop” and pulled her whole being into her voice when she sang. If she brought that sonic control to the chaotic freedom of heavy goth, Aaliyah could have redefined genres. It’s sad enough she doesn’t actually get much screen time in the movie. Aaliyah is the best thing in it. Her every motion doubles as a dance move or a fight stance; she oozes charisma and takes command of every scene.
The end credits were meant to feature a duet between Aaliyah and Davis, but it wasn’t meant to be. She was 22 years old when production wrapped on the movie, having only acted in Romeo Must Die. Her next acting project was going to be The Matrix Reloaded, and a Sparkle remake opposite Whitney Houston.
Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001. She was in the Bahamas to shoot the video for her song “Rock the Boat.” She was bound for Opa-Locka Airport when the Cessna 402B she was in exploded on impact just 200 feet beyond the end of a runway at Marsh Harbour International Airport on Abaco Island.
Rice not only denounced Queen of the Damned when it came out but declared no more movies would be made from her books. This put an end to The Vampire Chronicles on film–although they are finally about to rise again from the grave on television. The cinematic moratorium has since cemented Queen of the Damned’s standing as a cult classic, but it had all the materials for a monster masterwork.