Saturday, April 5, 2014

Queen of the Damned

Life here at the Benny Ford center hasn't been easy for a star of my caliber. No cushy suites with Godiva chocolates on the nightstand and fresh gladioli in the vases every morning. Instead, I share my Spartan quarters with Niki and Mo, two other career girls in recovery, assist in the kitchen (murder on the nails) and attend group and private therapy sessions in order to kick my cravings for Special K and other exotic substances. The first week or so was a low time for me as I leached all the toxins out of my body. I barely had the strength to do a time step while helping peel the potatoes.

I did have one piece of good news, however. While reading Daily Variety one morning, I noticed a little article which detailed Margo Channing's recent admission to Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. Apparently, during a rehearsal of her new musical, the combined weight of her ample figure and her costume for the title role in Stephen King's Christine caused her to fall through the stage floor. She fractured both legs and will be in traction for several months. I told Joseph to send her a nice cactus.

This afternoon, as a treat, all of us girls were allowed a special escorted trip to the local Cineplex for a film. The choice was the new Anne Rice adaptation, Queen of the Damned based on the third novel of her famous Vampire Chronicles. Niki thought the title particularly apropos to my current situation and kept hooting and throwing popcorn at me during the previews until Mo sat on her. This film comes from the same studio (Warner Brothers) as Neil Jordan's earlier seductive adaptation of Rice's Interview with the Vampire but the similarities end there. This new film comes from a completely different production team and was originally conceived as a direct to video sequel. It was bumped up to a major release after the premature death of one of the stars, Aaliyah, in a plane crash during post production. Nothing like a little disaster to heighten awareness and bring the publicity machine into play.

In Queen of the Damned, Anne Rice's anti-hero, the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (played by Tom Cruise in the original) is essayed by Irish actor Stuart Townsend. Lestat awakens from a long slumber (conveniently forgetting his awakened state at the end of the first film) by the sound of modern Goth-punk music. Head banging chords seem to do nearly as much for him as blood and soon he's assembled a band in New Orleans and he's off on the road touring as 'The Vampire Lestat'. In London, he meets Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a young apprentice of the Talamasca (an order of investigators of the supernatural - very familiar to Rice aficionados and completely unexplained in the film) who is attracted to the dark life of the vampires. So begins a strange and impossible romance. Then, for no special reason, we flash back 200 or so years to Lestat's making as a vampire by the older Marius (Vincent Perez) in a sequence of homoerotic tableau that look like studies for academic nudes circa 1875.

While with Marius, Lestat first encounters Akasha (Aaliyah), queen of the vampires who rests in alabaster slumber until she hears his music. He drinks from her, becomes stronger and separates from Marius. Flash forward again and he and his band are conducting a concert in Death Valley. Akasha, aroused by his new music, pays him a visit and then the fun begins. The other older vampires, led by Meharet (Lena Olin), decide that the awakened Akasha must be destroyed leading to a show down.

Rice's long and complicated novel has been slimmed almost beyond recognition for the less than two hour running time. Major plot points are left completely unexplained. Important figures such as Mael, Khayman, Armand and Pandora are glimpsed, but never introduced or allowed to develop a character beyond a pair of fangs. Anyone who has not delved into Rice in detail will be completely at sea as to what is happening and why most of the time. The screenplay (Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni) is full of howlingly bad lines and moments. Supposedly they have written for the screen before. I was doubting they'd ever seen a film.

Visually, however, the film has its moments. The vampires all appear to be sculpted from marble and alabaster with kohl rimmed eyes, sleek and beautiful like Greek statuary come to life. (They should, however, have gone to better lengths in hiding Lestat's appendectomy scar.) The locations (Australia doubling for London and California) are used well and there is a decadent grandeur about certain scenes, such as Marius and Lestat sitting at crotch level in front of a giant Sunset Strip billboard of Lestat. It's supported by a strong soundtrack. I'm not terribly interested in this type of Goth rock but it does help the film rocket along.

Stuart Townsend, an actor I am unfamiliar with, is quite game as Lestat. He doesn't have Cruise's charisma but his snakelike movements and sinuous grace have a way of drawing you in. Aaliyah, the first black actress to ever essay an Egyptian queen to my knowledge, looks stunning in her get-up and has the stage presence to play the villainess in this, her last film. Unfortunately, someone has saddled her with some sort of Mel Blanc accent in order to make her sound more foreign. She comes across as having a speech impediment. Vincent Perez plays Marius as a strange gay caricature in red velvet. It works in the context of the film but is hardly how Rice conceived the character. Marguerite Moreau, as the heroine, barely makes an impact. All I can tell you about her is she has pretty hair. No one else has enough screen time to be of any interest.

I'm not quite sure who this film was made for. Rice fans will be disappointed at the weak adaptation. Horror film fans will be disappointed as it's not in the least bit scary. Fans of the first film will be disappointed as it has none of that film's style and panache. Aaliyah's fans will be disappointed as she has little to do but stand around and look evil (although she and Townsend do have one stylized sex scene amongst rose petals that works quite well). My suggestion is to stay home and rent the first film if you need a dose of the Rice vampire clan.

Dead girl with violin. Nipple biting. Bleeding family tree. Gratuitous Los Angeles planetarium. Exploding vampires. Doll collection. Gratuitous MTV plug. Corpses in swimming pool. Corpses on beach. Episcopalian joke.

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