There are few mainstream authors who polarise opinion as much as Anne Rice. Sacred to her fans and near-impenetrable to everybody else, her novels are mounted as indulgent fantasies that usually span hundreds of years in the telling of frothy tales of passion, death and the darkness of existence. In other words, they’re basically soap operas on a grand scale, with plenty of violence, lust and sex (often simultaneously) thrown in amongst the weighty prose to make sure the attention is held in between the talky bits. If it’s your kind of thing (and for millions, it is) an Anne Rice book can open whole new worlds. If you don’t click with it all, though, the going can be tedious and tough. These are not short novels, and they don’t skimp on detail.
The story Rice is most famous for, of course, is that of Lestat, a character introduced in Interview With The Vampire and expanded upon in a seemingly unstoppable series of books collectively known, somewhat pompously, as the “Vampire Chronicles” - a title that gives some idea of just how seriously people who are into these novels take them. And the Hollywood attention the books were always going to get, given their popularity, is naturally the subject of much debate amongst fans. Nothing unusual there, of course - nobody likes seeing their favourite novel given the Reader’s Digest treatment for the big screen and having their imagination spelt out for them, and Rice’s stories are notoriously intricate. Neil Jordan’s attempt at the first book was a partial success; it certainly got the atmosphere right, there was plenty of talking, the execution was utterly tasteful and Tom Cruise wasn’t actually all that bad as Lestat. Not much actually happened in the two hour running time, but that, apparently, wasn’t the point. The fans generally approved (as, eventually, did Rice herself).
Queen of the Damned is a very different beast to its predecessor of eight years before, though. A very loose adaptation of both the book of the same name and preceding tome The Vampire Lestat (yes, two hefty books condensed into 90 minutes), this is about as close as you’re ever likely to get to seeing an Anne Rice novel turned into an action movie. Oh, make no mistake, there’s the requisite philosophising and theatricality here, but this time it takes a back seat to the pulp horror and noisy action.
As Queen of the Damned opens, Lestat (Stuart Townsend) is awoken from a long, long slumber deep in his crypt by the sound of a garage band rehearsing in a suburban lounge room. Figuring “hey, why not be a rock star” (as one does) he joins the band, takes control and immediately becomes an international star, the band’s records (which sound suspiciously like Korn, mostly because they’re written and performed by The Guy From Korn) selling by the millions. Forgetting the golden vampire rule that he should live in the shadows and not make himself known to mere humans, Lestat has already been somewhat naughty by daring to become a rock star and promising a huge outdoor concert in the middle of Death Valley, but he’s also gone and fallen in love with Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a human that just happens to be a member of the Talamasca, a shadowy organisation that investigates the paranormal. That would be dangerous enough, but there’s one other hitch; Lestat’s music is loud enough to wake ancient Egyptian queen Akasha (Aaliyah) who’s a big enough fan to want Lestat all to herself, happy to fry everyone who gets in her way to a big glowing crisp. A climactic battle is, of course, inevitable.
It may be set in the world’s big cities, but Queen of the Damned was actually filmed in and around Melbourne - both for budgetary reasons, and because director Michael Rymer (who helmed the wonderful drama Angel Baby some years ago) is a local. That’s turned out to be both a blessing and a curse; many of the scenes here are quite clearly not filmed where they’re set, something a generous helping of stock footage can’t disguise. But the large Melbourne goth contingent that enthusiastically threw themselves into the spirit of things as (largely unpaid) extras at the Death Valley concert scenes and elsewhere in the movie are the film’s biggest asset; it could possibly be the first Hollywood-produced mainstream movie to feature goths that are actually convincing, and without them this fairly pedestrian effort would have looked even sillier than it does already.
To be fair, it’s not all bad; in fact, up until the concert sequence the film’s an entertaining enough prospect, if a little clumsily plotted. But just as things are starting to turn fun the story takes a right-turn towards high camp as the plot goes seriously awry and becomes unfathomably muddled. A spiritual/supernatural subtext that makes no sense (thanks to cuts) is bolted on to a silly evil-versus-eviller finale, and ultimately the movie, which started out being knowingly flamboyant and likeably campy, sinks under its own pretensions.
That’s a shame, because there’s a lot of competence here, particularly technically; cinematographer Ian Baker’s use of the wide Panavision film frame is terrific throughout, the lighting suitably atmospheric and the camera constantly moving. The cast - most of whom, aside from the headline stars, are Australian - seem to be having enormous fun, and while it may be a little more mainstream than the goth scene would usually tolerate, Jonathan Davis and Richard Gibbs’ songs are terrific (as indeed is their orchestral score). The production design is opulent and engaging as well, as are the costumes; the film looks great, aside from a handful of computer effects scenes that are simply amateurish (the closing shot, though, is memorable).
But with the source stories so mercilessly sliced and diced to fit them into an hour and a half of mass-appeal entertainment, most of the things that make Anne Rice so popular in the first place have been unflinchingly jettisoned in favour of catch-phrases (beware any movie that repeatedly drags out “come out, come out wherever you are” in an effort to be spooky), bad accents (are these people Italian, Spanish, French or just trying to impersonate Ricardo Montalban?) and a paper-thin plot that Joss Whedon would have disposed of in ten minutes on an episode of Buffy or Angel. It’s all harmless fun, sure - but Anne Rice fans probably expect a little bit more than mere harmless fun from film adaptations of her work.
The atmospheric widescreen photography in Queen of the Damned is captured beautifully on DVD, as we’ve come to expect from Roadshow - though this video transfer, done in the US, was actually authored for DVD by the film’s US distributor Warner Bros. It is, in fact, a PAL version of the exact same disc that US customers get. Framed at its full-blown 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 16:9 enhanced transfer is very, very good. Loaded with crisp definition without undue over-sharpness, and with ample colour saturation and deftly-balanced contrast, this is a very film-like transfer that oozes class right the way through. Video compression for DVD is also expertly handled and no problems crop up aside from some brief shimmer on a couple of sharp objects and a couple of surprising instances of posterisation on background skies that only the keen-eyed will pick up.
Stored on a dual-layered disc, the movie pauses for a millisecond mid-way through for a layer switch that’s so deftly placed most won’t even see it.
In a film where bass-grunt rock music is a key plot point, you’d expect to hear good audio. And that’s exactly what you get - a reference-standard Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix that’s seriously, bone-crunchingly good. Taking full advantage of the five-speaker array available to them, the sound mixers have gone to town on the effects, flying them around the room at will and happily using the rear channels for anything even vaguely out of the ordinary; dialogue is largely centre-anchored as usual, and the orchestral score lavishly spread around the channels. That score and the rock songs also make extensive use of the LFE channel, with the concert sequence in particular given added kick thanks to the high-velocity gut-wrenching sub-bass that underpins the songs’ rhythm sections. The subwoofer is, in fact, a bit of a favourite toy for our trusty sound mixers, who employ it at every opportunity but never quite overdo it.
A truly state of the art movie sound mix, this is pure show-off material for those who’ve just bought new home theatre gear and want to take revenge on the neighbours.