It was my experience that movies helped a lot during puberty. I don’t know about other people, but all my friends and I wanted to do was watch a bunch of R-rated films and talk until the sex scenes — when we’d stop talking.
Chris usually got up to rewind once the scenes were over.
“You’re a pervert!” we’d say. But no one stopped him. We were too guilty for soft-core porn and Monster’s Ball was teaching us stuff.
We rented everything from the oldest rental shop in town, Video Dimensions. Blockbuster was running them out of business but they still had the most bizarre VHS selection we could ever hope to encounter. I’m talking Teeth, front row center, flanked by numerous bins of narrative gold. We’d scour them for NC-17 ratings, scoring obscure titles like Bliss and The Pillow Book.
It was in one of these bins that Itoro and I first found Queen of the Damned.
Aaliyah on the cover as a badass-looking vampire was enough to pique our interest. And then we noticed a guy lurking behind her, sans shirt, with a hint of chiseled abs. The rental deal was sealed.
What I remember most about watching that movie for the first time was thinking that Lestat (played by Stuart Townsend) was a vampire-version of Frodo Baggins in resemblance and demeanor, with a tad more angst. I also thought the rock music soundtrack was super cool, and Aaliyah was a goddess.
“She was life-giving,” Itoro says now, remembering Aaliyah’s ancient Egyptian-style boob plates and ability to make other vampires incinerate from the inside-out. “We felt like outcasts in high school, and she helped us dream.”
It was true. We were not very popular, and Queen of the Damned became an outlet for our torment. A weekly tradition was born from that viewing, which involved us fighting with Itoro’s little brother for control of the television and never, ever returning the rental property to Video Dimensions.
Before watching Queen of the Damned again, this time in my late twenties, I eased myself into the experience by viewing the trailer and was struck by this summation of the film, as told by ominous voiceover:
“All she wants is hell on earth.”
She refers to the Queen of the Damned (as portrayed by Aaliyah) who, in one scene, torches a building with the enflamed corpses of 20 to 30 other vampires. “Was she really that evil?” I thought to myself now. “And why?”
The trailer also introduced Stuart Townsend as Lestat (previously played by the superstar likes of Tom Cruise) and I thought about how interesting Queen of the Damned is timeline-wise. In terms of high-profile vampire movies from 1994 to 2008, QOD falls right in between Interview with a Vampire, Blade, Underworld and Twilight, making it the middle child of vampire movies of its era.
And after watching it again, I can safely say that, in other ways, it truly is the middle child of all vampire movies.
Let’s start at the beginning: Lestat wakes up very angsty from a thousand year nap in his big cement tomb to the music of a no-name nu metal band. They are practicing and the pink-haired lead singer is basically Gwen Stefani during the No Doubt days. Lestat walks in and ruins their practice session by singing like a ghost in the corner.
Lestat is angry, and we don’t know why. He asserts himself over the band and becomes their figurehead, claiming: “From that moment on, they were my friends, my children, my band.” A montage music video appears to introduce the opening credits (think Korn and Evanescence meet a silent horror film) and for the rest of the movie, we cease to see any genuine interaction between Lestat and the band members. They’re merely puppets, we discover, to help him reach a greater audience — an audience of fellow vampires.
When I was a teeanager, Lestat’s chosen genre of music was about 75% of MTV. It was the parental advisory stuff my brother listened to in his room, brooding and edgy but inching its way into pop-status radio with bands like Staind and Linkin Park, maybe some P.O.D. Hearing it now made me nostalgic, to say the least, while recognizing its contribution to the histrionic persona of Lestat, who literally woke up when hearing the band play from his tomb. He explains:
“And gradually the world didn’t sound like the place I had left, but something different… better. A new fearless attitude had possessed the world, brave and Godless. I began to wonder if it was not time to resurrect.”
Now in this world (as in all of Rice’s novels) vampires lurk in the shadows, unknown to humans, as a means of protecting their species. So Lestat coming out and just announcing, “Hey! I’m a vampire! And I have a band!” is problematic.
“What is his motivation?” I wondered this time. Turns out, he’s a typical 200-year old teenager. He’s upset with one vampire in particular but doesn’t have the emotional regulation to not pick bones with all of them.
And through this turmoil, Akasha, Queen of the Damned makes her entrance.
First, though: some Rice backstory.
Lestat became a vampire because of another vampire named Marius, who kidnapped him in the late 17th century from an unknown European location. Marius was lonely in his immortality and wanted a companion. The human Lestat didn’t want to become a vampire, but Marius didn’t give him a choice.
As such, I felt bad for him. We see him as a human in some strange, unfamiliar bedroom—walking backwards in circles as Marius (creepily) explains why he “chose” him. Human Lestat is a seemingly normal man of his time, frightened; the Lord of a great manor, he claims. But after Marius turns him into a vampire, a strange sort of personal regression occurs as he sits up, sultry, and asks for more blood.
From there, Marius and Lestat are inseparable for what seems like a few months, but is probably hundreds of years. (In this movie, all time before the year 2002 is relative.) They travel the world together and take long walks on beaches at night as Lestat expresses a preliminary desire to violate the vampire code of secrecy and live their lives in the open—like a true millennial vampire child.
Marius, however, is of the ancient world and warns Lestat against this need to be known. The warning plants a seed of rebellion in Lestat who, curious one night, wanders into Marius’ gigantic basement to find two enthroned statues. The Queen of the Damned, and her King.
He plays the violin and the Queen statue moves, presenting her arm. He sees veins through the stone of her wrist. He bites and drinks.
And 100 years later, all hell breaks loose.
At this point, we finally discover the reason for Lestat’s angst: Marius abandoned him. After finding him passed out on the ground of his basement shrine, Marius chains Lestat to a bed and realizes that his charge is ignorant to the grave danger he’s awoken.
When Lestat wakes from slumber and sees that everything from his home with Marius is gone, he realizes that he is now alone in the world. From that very moment, song lyrics that we hear throughout the course of the movie are born, all performed in flawless nu metal fashion:
Alone without a care
Things that I can’t bear
Did you think it’s cool
To walk right up,
To take my life
And fuck it up?
(FUN FACT: Jonathan Davis from Korn co-wrote these lyrics with Richard Gibbs, and other nu/alternative/heavy metal bands—like Deftones, Papa Roach and Disturbed—contributed music to the movie’s soundtrack, too.)
Lestat is clearly traumatized, and his slumber before waking up to conquer the band does little to alleviate this.
Is his angst justified? I thought to myself in 2015.
Yes. Marius turned him into a vampire without asking and then abandoned him. It’s definitely justified.
Does his expression of angst through taking over a nu metal band and writing these lyrics lead me to taking his character seriously?
Not necessarily. But I believe in Lestat’s right to express his angst in whatever way he sees fit.
It becomes clear that Lestat is flaunting his vampire-identity to get the attention of Marius, who, after all those years, reappears in an attempt to make Lestat stop. (At which point I thought OH MY GOD IT WORKED.) But with all the kicking and screaming Lestat has done to get Marius to pay attention to him again, all the morose songs and music videos and dramatic interviews, he doesn’t seem that affected by their reunion. With little apparent emotion, Lestat mostly comments on his former companion’s clothes.
What’s worse, a large number of vampires are out to end his immortal life — and he’s aware of it. He’s about to perform at an internationally televised concert in Death Valley, California that the aforementioned vampires are planning to camp out and kill him at. While he’s on stage.
“Bring it on,” he ruminates to himself. “Better dead than alone.”
You may be wondering: “Why would a bunch of vampires who want to keep their existence a secret think that it’s going to help their cause to kill another vampire on international television?”
The answer is unclear. All I can say is that as a teenager, I was still getting a lot out of this movie. It didn’t matter what nonsense came out of Stuart Townsend’s mouth; I thought he was hot. And the best was yet to come. Akasha (or Aaliyah) was finally on her way.
She makes her official entrance into Lestat’s life at the concert. Vampires fly past head banging metal lovers and try to kill Lestat onstage. Everyone starts screaming. And then Akasha, Queen of the Damned, comes floating in, incinerating the vampires that would kill Lestat before breaking through the stage floor.
She summons Lestat to her and he soars through the air, into her arms. And they shoot off by themselves into the night sky, to Akasha’s island home that we have no idea how she got. (Narrative mystery that I only half care about number 27.)
The sex scene that my friends and I were hoping for has arrived.
Truthfully, it was anticlimactic — which was ok because it meant that we could watch the movie multiple times in front of our parents without it feeling too awkward. Basically all that happens is Akasha puts Lestat in a bath of rose pedals and then reaches her hand up through the water, touching his chest and biting his nipples.
It’s at this point in the movie when the gap between my adolescent and adult selves reaches its peak width. After a night of (presumably) crazy-good vampire sex, Akasha takes Lestat outside and tells him her dream for their life together. She is a Queen. But, according to her, she needs a King.
“He is no more,” she says of her previous King, who she killed before leaving for the concert. “Now you are my consort.”
Now, I’m all for having similar goals and whatnot, and I think it’s interesting that this character literally snatches this guy up and tells him (in plain terms), “Here’s what’s up: you’re going to be my consort.”
But there’s something else behind this, and that’s the need Akasha seems to express for a male leader. Could Akasha go on by herself and take over the world singlehandedly? Of course.
Instead, she insists on having a King, stroking Lestat’s ego when he expresses surprise over her being responsible for protecting him/killing the concert vampires who attacked him from afar. “The ego of a King as well,” she says.
This diminished my idea of the Queen of the Damned as a powerful, badass (albeit evil) feminist figure. In my memory, Akasha had everyone at her command, exuding an extreme type of power that my high school friends and I found comforting in its intensity.
But then, in 2015, I saw this scene. And I just wanted to say, “Akasha. You just blew up 900 vampires all by yourself. You do not need this whiny-ass dude to help you do anything. You are a criminal mastermind. Please leave him behind.”
I could be wrong about all of this, and I say this not to apologize but rather out of respect for Akasha. It’s possible that she has me fooled and tells Lestat he has the “ego of a king” to butter him up, and think he has more power in this situation than he does.
But when Lestat eventually robs her of all that power, a familiar/patriarchal story emerges: a woman can be powerful, but she has to pay for it somehow. Yes, I get that she’s evil and trying to bring about global destruction—but why does the most powerful woman in this movie have to be evil?
These are the questions that arose in my twenty-eight-year-old brain vs. my fifteen-year-old brain, which was mostly drooling over the shirtless people.
From there, the movie continues on a downward slope of trope and Western-cinematic resolve. I won’t give any specifics because SPOILERS, but I will say that Lestat’s melodramatic, irreverent heart withers, and we are left with a new vampire who has grown away from our sight, mysterious with a quiet demeanor that we are supposed to recognize as maturity.
At this point, I think it’s important to understand that Middle Child Syndrome is actually a thing and this movie actually has it. The most common symptoms are as follows:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of emptiness or inadequacy
- Tendency to be introverted
It would be very easy to attribute all of these characteristics to Lestat, who exhibits every single one on a personal/professional level that permeates the tone of the entire movie. But, in my opinion, it goes much deeper than Lestat. Let’s examine these symptoms and how they correlate with the way this movie affected audiences in 2002, and how it lives in memories of people today.
Audiences mostly panned the movie and sank its self-esteem into the depths of oblivion, with a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes and summaries like: “A muddled and campy MTV-style vampire movie with lots of eye candy and bad accents.” Roger Ebert was a bit more generous with two stars, and a more thoughtful (but still painful) rundown: “The key to a movie like this is to ask yourself, if these characters were not vampires, what would be interesting about them? The answer is, together they couldn’t even rule the people in this bar.” Ouch.
In terms of general narrative quality, Queen of the Damned does not hold a candle to preceding vampire movies (Interview with a Vampire), and later ones were far more popular (the first and lowest-grossing Twilight movie made well over ten times as much as Queen at the box office). Queen of the Damned has every right in the world to be extremely jealous of its wealthier, more successful vampire movie siblings.
Feelings of emptiness or inadequacy
The 2002 review of Queen in the New York Times cites Aaliyah’s natural command of character in Romeo Must Die. Because QOD was released posthumously, audiences saw it as a tribute of sorts to the late and talented celebrity, with the Times review recalling how the Times Square preview crowd “raised the roof” when she made her first appearance more than thirty minutes into the film. But once the audience realized how little Aaliyah was actually used, the review claims “That same audience lapsed into bored silence,” later making this prediction: “Moviegoers may rush out of the theater before seeing the title card dedicating the film to her, which is a good thing. She deserved better.”
OK, so the movie is low-quality and campy, and pretty much an abomination to the memory of Aaliyah (who we still love, RIP). But perhaps part of what else makes this movie so unfriendly to viewers is the multiple and uneven storylines; one subplot is so confusing and convoluted that I didn’t even go into it here. It involves a whole other vampire family and a human who was born into it and put up for adoption and is now looking for someone to turn her into a vampire and it is just baffling.
Tendency to be introverted
Because everyone who I’ve talked to about this piece has said, “Wait, that vampire movie with Aaliyah? I think I saw that on TV once. Wasn’t it really bad?”
Queen of the Damned has been hiding its face in the shadows for too long!
Now that I’ve re-exposed all the trash everyone talked about Queen of the Damned, it must be feeling pretty bad about itself. But since I am a true product of the Toy Story generation and get the sense that all the spoons in my utensil drawer have emotions, I am going to pen an open letter to this movie and let it know what it meant to me when I was fifteen years old—and what it means to me now, in retrospect.
Dear Queen of the Damned,
It’s been about twelve years since we were last together, and I am so glad that we’ve been reunited. Not just for the nu metal, which I have thoroughly enjoyed re-experiencing, but also for the reflection you’ve given me of the standards I once held for what makes a movie worth watching over and over again. You’ve shown me how far I’ve come, and I thank you for that.
Listen. It’s possible that at some stage your screenplay was written by a twelve-year-old; it’s true that your writing/dialogue is that underdeveloped. Perhaps you have plot holes the size of a Costco parking lot. Maybe the poor actors involved in the making of you walked away with a nice paycheck but less credibility. I can conceive of the notion that you are just a bad movie.
But you were more than that to Itoro and I when we were fifteen. You were our favorite thing to sit with on the weekend.
Itoro said you helped us dream, and that’s true. Not just about Stuart Townsend and his lily-white complexion that reminded me of an angel, but about stages and flying, and the general world outside our shitty small town.
And yes, I may understand now that Lestat is lily-white because he is supposed to be physically dead, and the fact that I ever found him attractive may be disturbing to me on some level. But when I watched you again, I also remembered that itch I felt to graduate, that desire I had to travel, that deep inner sadness and confusion validated by the music of your soundtrack and Lestat’s general weepiness.
You are the middle child of vampire movies, and coincidentally enough, Itoro and I were middle children, too. Maybe you just got us on some level that we couldn’t articulate yet. I don’t know. But you resonated with us, and for that I thank you. It was very good to see you again.
And, Aaliyah, once more, RIP. We still love you.
- Queen of the Damned: The Middle Child of Vampire Movies - October 29, 2015