Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned
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Credit: Warner Bros.

Why fans of The Vampire Chronicles hate Queen of the Damned

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Mar 4, 2020, 6:00 PM EST

Bram Stoker may be the king of the vampire novel, but its undisputed queen is Anne Rice. For close to 45 years, the American author has wholly redefined the genre and influenced generations of pop culture thanks to her overwhelmingly sensual and historically dense tales featuring a vibrant ensemble of charismatic blood drinkers, each in search of the answers to life, the universe, and their respective existences. If you've read a vampire novel published in the past four decades then the chances are it was hugely inspired by Rice's work, explicitly or otherwise.

We have Rice to thank in large part for our cultural image of vampires as lascivious intellectuals who transcend societal notions of gender and sexuality, embracing the philosophical and sensual over the horrific. The metaphor of the vampire has endured for centuries, and Rice's interpretation has remained particularly timeless. Read her first vampire novel, 1976's Interview With the Vampire, today and you will find that it is as fresh and relevant as it was upon publication.

Despite its oversized impact on pop culture as a whole, The Vampire Chronicles has been rather hesitantly embraced by the entertainment industry. The 1994 adaptation of Interview With the Vampire, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, was popular and acclaimed in its day, but it didn't exactly spark a whole new age of vampire cinema. Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin wrote a notoriously bad musical adaptation of the first three novels, titled Lestat, which closed after 39 performances.

And then there's Queen of the Damned, the 2002 cinematic flop that most fans of the novel like to pretend never happened. There's a reason for that. To put it bluntly, Queen of the Damned is bad. It's the sort of bad movie that is too inept to even be interestingly inept. For novices to the world of The Vampire Chronicles, the film is just another bad horror title that they'll forget watching once the credits roll, but for fans, it's a painful desecration of the source material.

The novel of Interview With the Vampire didn't get a sequel until nine years after its release, because Rice had never initially intended the story to be more than a standalone piece. The Vampire Lestat, released in 1985, is a very different beast from its predecessor. Where Interview took the form of an extended interview with Louis, The Vampire Lestat is essentially the memoirs of Louis' old friend-slash-foe, Lestat de Lioncourt. Louis portrayed Lestat as a spoiled brat deviant with no qualms about manipulating everyone around him, something that Lestat was very pissed off about. His own memoir is an attempt to set the record straight by telling his own origin story and letting the world in on all of the vampires' most treasured secrets. He doesn't just want to reveal the truth of vampires to humans through a mere book, however. He wants to take over the world as a rock star.

1988's The Queen of the Damned depicts Lestat's great stage debut, interspersed with the stories of various vampires connected to him, culminating in the retelling of the entire origin story of vampirism. Over a combined total of around a thousand pages, Rice creates a lush history that spans generations and continents, tackling themes of queerness, faith, celebrity, and power. She may have written thousands of pages since then, but the original Vampire Chronicles trilogy is still her masterpiece.

So, how do you utterly f**k that up with a movie?

The major issue with 2002's Queen of the Damned (note the lack of "the" at the beginning) is that it was made very quickly to meet a deadline. Warner Bros. had owned the rights to several Rice novels for much of the '90s and needed to get something into production by the end of 2000, lest they revert to the author's control. It was decided by the producers and initial story meetings that, rather than adapt one title, Queen of the Damned would take on both the novel from which it gets its title and the preceding The Vampire Lestat, although the finished product has very little in common with either book.

We see almost nothing of Lestat's origins, the story of the creation of all vampires is totally omitted, and the main focus instead is Lestat as a rock star. It's understandable why the studio would want this version of the story, even if it has very little to do with its source material. There probably wouldn't have been a wide audience for a deeply introspective historical drama with an episodic structure. The things that make Rice's work so intoxicating on the page are tough to translate to the screen (although director Neil Jordan did it extremely well with Interview With the Vampire). A story about an undead rock musician trying to start a war with his fellow vampires by revealing their millennia-old secrets to humanity through song is one hell of a hook.

This dramatic condensing of the narrative means that the movie cannot help but feel painfully unfinished. Aspects of the novels that are pivotal to the plot just don't exist here, such as the story of the Twins and how they helped to create the first vampires. A bunch of key characters, such as Louis and Daniel (the interviewer from the first book), are gone, while others are either rewritten in ways that make no sense or shoved to the margins and made inconsequential. Even Lestat, the story's wildly charismatic protagonist, is made boring through this act of adaptation. Even if you're familiar with the source material, watching Queen of the Damned kind of makes you wonder why anyone involved even bothered.

The timing of the adaptation is also a major issue. Making a vampire movie in 2002 was a very different task from doing so in 1985, in large part because Anne Rice changed the genre so radically. Films like The Hunger, Fright Night, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, as well as Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, were indelibly impacted by Lestat and company, as was the cultural understanding of vampirism. Rice's work helped to make that image of the sensuous aristocratic beauty driven by emotional turmoil and philosophical understanding the default image of the vampire in pop culture, one of romance more than horror. By the time 2002 rolled around, said image was a full-on cliché and lacked the potency it possessed in the '80s. When The Vampire Lestat dropped in '85, it was radical and refreshing to see vampires like that. By 2002, it was well-worn, overdone, and kind of silly. Queen of the Damned as a movie is extremely silly, taking itself incredibly seriously without embracing any of the melodramatic camp of the source material or understanding the specific genre context it's now operating in. All of a sudden, Lestat just seems pathetically uncool.

Said lack of cool is exacerbated by the movie's decision to focus on Lestat's time as a rock star. Once again, the setting changes everything. When Rice wrote this plotline in the '80s, it was the age of the music megastars, from Freddie Mercury to Prince to David Bowie. It made sense to imagine why Lestat would awaken from a decades-long slumber, hear the music of the time, and decide to use it as his vehicle to spread a worldwide message about the vampire lore. It was the era of MTV and Live Aid and yuppie-era consumerism, so of course Lestat would see rock and roll as the ideal means to grab everyone's attention and to be worshipped by the masses. That doesn't really work in 2002, especially with the film desperately trying to chase trends and focusing on the flash-in-the-pan musical fad of the time: nu-metal.

Jonathan Davis of Korn fame was hired to write and perform the music for Lestat's band, and the soundtrack was filled with songs by bands like Disturbed, Papa Roach, and Marilyn Manson. It's all so painfully early 2000s in a way that hasn't aged well, but it didn't feel especially current or radical in 2002. Even during the height of its popularity, nu-metal was criticized for sounding too whiny and immature. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails said the sound was "really insincere" and came across "as being comical, as being a parody of itself." Musicians called the genre out for its lack of real edge and seeming insincerity. A 2013 article from NME called nu-metal the worst music genre of all time. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to use nu-metal as the creative foundations for their centuries-old plan of supernatural domination that has the power to change the face of the earth as we know it. Would you want to join a vampire cult if the guy leading it sang like Fred Durst?

Anne Rice said that her main inspiration for Lestat's sound and musical persona was Jim Morrison, which makes way more sense than Korn or Limp Bizkit. The frontman for The Doors possessed a truly otherworldly personality and felt genuinely dangerous when he sang songs inspired by Brecht and asked you to light his fire. It doesn't seem, however, that a Morrison-esque rocker would have worked as Lestat does in the '80s. Perhaps that genre of rock that Lestat would need to be simply doesn't exist. That or we have to buy that Van Halen with fangs would have been a surprise hit (David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, obviously).

Personally, the thing about Queen of the Damned that really sticks in my unfanged teeth is the straight-washing. Rice's vampires are all queer, eschewing societal ideas of gender and sexuality in exchange for a more fluid approach to both. They love who they love, obsessively so, the rest of the world be damned. It was bad enough that Interview With the Vampire removed the most explicit aspects of this queerness from the movie, although they at least had the common sense to keep all the obvious homoerotic tension between the characters.

Queen of the Damned doesn't just remove all references to Lestat's fluid sexuality (as well as that of everyone else in the ensemble); it forces a new female love interest onto him. In the novel, the character of Jesse Reeves is crucial because she provides a familial connection to the Twins and their backstory. She is a descendant of Maharet, one of the original vampires, and through her love for this woman who helped to raise her, we see Jesse's own eagerness to discover the secrets of her past and the truth of vampires. Her connection to Lestat in the book is minimal as she sees him merely as a means to an end, a way for her to confirm her suspicions about her own connection to vampires. In the movie, all of that fascinating backstory and motivation is gone and she becomes just another chick who's, like, totally into the hot vampire Lestat and wants to help save him from his sorrows. Jesse goes from being her own person to a love interest who sees a man as a project. It's insulting for various reasons, even before we take into consideration how she is used as a full-on "no homo" shield for Lestat in this adaptation.

On top of that, the forced love story with Jesse and Lestat wipes out the romantic and emotional connection he forms with the Queen of the Damned herself, Akasha, played by the late, great Aaliyah. This movie doesn't even give us the good straight romance, the one where Lestat comes to the horrifying realization of his own amorality through his attachment to the mother of all vampires and her own evil intentions. That adaptation choice really sums up the movie: a series of choices made to turn interesting ideas into derivative mush.

A lavish TV adaptation courtesy of Hulu was planned for several years, with Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller briefly attached, but it has since been dropped and the rights have reverted to Rice's control. It's not unlikely that we'll eventually get some sort of adaptation of The Vampire Chronicles beyond stand-alone movies, but the material itself, as richly developed and engrossing as it is, comes with various challenges that may scare off many safe-playing network executives. A true adaptation of this series will require a show — there's no way this can be a movie, sorry — willing to commit to languid pacing, baroque melodrama, lots of historical flashbacks, and a distinct lack of action. Rice's best books are often compiled of hundreds of pages of alternate histories or retellings of biblical lore, and TV tends to want at least a few more dramatic beats than that. As evidenced by Queen of the Damned, we know what happens when Hollywood gets impatient. Here's hoping we can avoid that mess once more. At the very least, let's all pretend that nu-metal didn't happen.

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