`Queen' is a royal pain in the neck

Review: The late R&B singer Aaliyah adds some appeal. But as far as entertainment goes, this film goes belly-up.

February 22, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Can garlic and crosses protect us from awful, pretentious vampire movies like Queen of the Damned?

This kind of fiasco turns movie critics into so many Night Stalkers. You want to tell the public to beware of movies that begin with classy shots of ancient statuary and a voice moaning on and on about the intolerability of eternity.

The notion behind the movie is that a rock 'n' roll culture filled with tattoos, body piercing, androgynous promiscuity and doomy proclamations would re-energize an 18th-century super-vampire like Lestat (Stuart Townsend). Lestat, says director Michael Rymer, "was always frustrated with the restrictions of moral European culture." Why didn't he stay in the 18th century and hook up with the Marquis de Sade?

A theater packed with expectant fans laughed twice: once when the youthful heroine, Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a member of the "Talamasca" society for the study of vampires, approaches Lestat, a rock superstar, next to a would-be groupie. Lestat pegs Jesse right away as a Talamascan. The would-be groupie, sensing she's shut out, stammers, "I'm an Episcopalian."

The other laugh arrives when Lestat's estranged 18th-century mentor, Marius (Vincent Perez), shows up unexpectedly in Lestat's L.A. digs before his big concert in Death Valley. Lestat asks him, reasonably, how he managed to "slip through the '50s in red velvet?" A few follow-up snickers ensue: Marius confesses he slept through the '50s; Lestat assures him all he missed was Elvis. "You're bigger than Elvis," asserts Marius.

Hmmmm. If Elvis was bigger than the Beatles and the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, does that mean Lestat is bigger than Jesus?

You have lots of chances to ponder such imponderables because nothing essential happens in Queen of the Damned until the climax. Its 101 minutes feel like an intolerable eternity, all right.

Based on Anne Rice's 1988 entry in her Vampire Chronicles series, it shows how Lestat's bass-heavy, belly-aching music, his recklessness in proclaiming himself a vampire to mortals, and his status as a contemporary pop deity ("how 20th century!" I thought) rouse the hibernating Akasha (Aaliyah), the ancient Egyptian queen who is the mother of all vampires.

Rymer stages and cuts vampire feedings as frantically as shark attacks in lousy Jaws rip-offs. And the soundtrack becomes a case of dueling voiceovers, as entries from Lestat's old diary compete for our dwindling attention with Jesse's confessions of her growing love for him. The movie takes its own ungodly time, whether dramatizing the on-and-off relationship of Lestat and Marius, or building up the omnipotence of Akasha, who doesn't blow into the picture until way past the halfway mark.

When she does, the late Aaliyah, moving like a belly dancer without a belly, sets the vampire world literally on fire. She manages to portray a monarch of terror by over-enunciating while speaking in a soft, low voice. "How sweet-tuh!" she says at one point. At any rate, she's more appealing than Townsend's Lestat, who looks like a poster boy for heroin chic and sounds like a bargain basement Charles Boyer.

When Lestat yodels for his fellow vampires to "Come out, come out whoever you are," it's hard to mistake the double meaning. Unless you're into bisexuality, S&M and occult mumbo-jumbo - the mixture that appears to be at the root of Anne Rice's popularity - the "issue" of whether vampires should stay in the closet adds to the movie's interminable slog.

Lestat's plight is that of a crazy, mixed-up sort of vampire who yearns for human contact and, in Townsend's words, loved being a blood-sucker "for only about a half hour." I enjoyed watching Lestat for about 15 seconds. Since vampires kill other vampires in this movie, usually through some magical incineration, I'm not clear whether all the tried-and-true methods work on advanced fellows like him. As an experiment, let's drive a wooden stake through the negative of Queen of the Damned.

Queen of the Damned

Starring Stuart Townsend and Aaliyah

Directed by Michael Rymer

Rated R (vampire violence)

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 101 minutes

Sun score *

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