Finally, Warner has produced a second screen installment from Anne Rice’s bestselling “Vampire Chronicles” (after Neil Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire” eight years ago) and the result, “Queen of the Damned,” arriving after months of whispery rumors, isn’t quite as bad as might have been feared. Handsomely mounted, this direly conventional bit of vampire business is enlivened by flashes of humor and game performances. It isn’t great entertainment or camp, but pic sets its ambitions so low, it can’t help partially delivering on them. That, combined with the much ballyhooed presence of late singer-actress Aaliyah in the title role, should give pic some brief B.O. bite, even if, unlike its title character, any regal enthronement will be less than immortal.
This “Vampire Chronicles” pic adopts a distinctly different set of aesthetics from its predecessor. Helmer Michael Rymer disposes of Jordan’s baroquely operatic style and charges forth in full down-and-dirty exploitation mode. Pic opens in the present, as Lestat (Stuart Townsend, stepping into the role originated by Tom Cruise) awakens from a self-imposed century-long nap. The world has changed:There’s an entire subculture of gothic music and clubs where a vampire might feel right at home — an aboveground netherworld of the living dead. A pleased Lestat sets out to take it by storm.
Amusingly, Lestat sets himself up as the lead singer of a goth-metal act and becomes an overnight sensation. He breaks a centuries-old code of vampire secrecy by announcing his true identity to the media (not that anyone believes him) and sets about living it up, like a typical spoiled-brat rock star. He even has a much put-upon personal assistant, charged with rounding up juicy female flesh.
Townsend is terrific, prissing and preening, totally immersed in whiny-celebrity mode, but with a good sense of vampire appeal and electrifying as a stage performer, too.
A parallel story about Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a paranormal researcher who may have a secret family link to vampires, is less interesting. Jesse is part of the team at a famed London institute — the Talamasca — that studies the universe’s dark forces. The Talamasca is one of those stock horror-movie locales — a series of lush rooms with spooky researcher types wizened by their association with evil (you half expect Alan Bates’ character from “The Mothman Prophecies” to show up). The gag is that all these people are turned on by vampires, too, just in a different way than the masses that lap up Lestat’s music. Jesse has the heavy hots for Lestat, and when she reads his ancient diary in the Talamasca’s collection, she falls in love with the tragi-romantic notion of himself that he projects on the page. As Jesse reads, we see, in flashback, how Lestat was abducted by the even more ancient vampire Marius (Vincent Perez) and gradually converted. And Perez, like Townsend, is clearly having a blast with his swishy, mother-father-sugardaddy character.
Perez, who regrettably isn’t around for nearly long enough, is the liveliest he’s ever seemed in an English-speaking performance. Enacting some great catty exchanges, like two jilted lovers quarreling, Perez and Townsend have the best scenes in the film.
But Jesse is a bore, both as a character and via Moreau’s performance. When she follows Lestat back to his coven (conveniently disguised as a nightclub), he is supposed to see something special in her, but it’s not a vision the viewer can share.
After that point, the movie goes on autopilot, getting bogged down in mythic-sounding vocabulary and rules and regulations about vampirism. It’s a spewing forth of exposition meant to set up the big finale, where all of Lestat’s vampire enemies come to ambush him at a Burning Man-style music festival in Death Valley. Ending feels like a conscious shift in tone, as if the filmmakers realized they were having a bit too much fun and didn’t want to risk alienating Anne Rice purists. The finale is exactly the son-et-lumiere chaos you expect, complete with ill-conceived digital effects and lots of humorless carnage; it’s a typical vampire show with nothing going on underneath.
And what of Aaliyah, the movie’s selling point? Blink and you might miss her. Her big entrance, in pic’s title role, doesn’t come until nearly an hour in, and when she does appear, it’s a bit disconcerting to hear a manipulated, robotic-sounding voice coming out of her. (She sounds a bit like Cher on her recent vocoder-enhanced dance singles.) Aaliyah never has much to do, and you can’t really tell if she’s in on the film’s jokiness or not (because by the time she appears, pic has largely solemnized), but her Queen Akasha does slink across the screen with catlike conviction, and when she and Lestat stare longingly into each other’s eyes, it really seems like they’ve been waiting centuries to get it on.
Shot almost exclusively in Melbourne, pic has a crisp, sleek look courtesy of ace lenser Ian Baker (who regularly shoots Fred Schepisi’s movies) and some eye-catching sets (doubling, at points, for recognizable London and L.A. locales) created by vet Aussie production designer Graham “Grace” Walker.