Queen of the Damned is the most metal movie of all time. Correction, it’s the most nu-metal movie of all time, which might sound like an insult but, if you were a moody teenager in the early to mid-2000s, you’ll immediately get why that makes it so special. Who knew vampires would make such good rock stars? Well, evidently, Anne Rice did, since she envisioned her greatest creation, Lestat, as the lead singer of the greatest band on earth. As played by Irish actor Stuart Townsend, he’s got the dangerous sex appeal of Michael Hutchence but the (actual) singing voice of Korn’s Jonathan Davis (Davis co-wrote the blistering soundtrack, alongside fellow music icon, albeit of an entirely different genre, Richard Gibbs). It’s a jarring choice, since Davis’s voice is so distinctive, particularly if you’re a Korn fan, but it fits Lestat as snugly as a mesh shirt openly tied at the sides for no apparent reason.
Rice might have written Lestat as an Elvis-like sex god–there’s a knowing, throwaway line in the movie about how he’s actually “bigger than him now”–but it somehow makes even more sense that Lestat is leading the kind of band that’s so popular they only need to play one show in their entire career. The world-conquering success of The Vampire Lestat, as the group is dubiously known, makes no sense if you know anything about alternative music. There might be millions of little Goth and metal kids all over the world, but there aren’t nearly enough to propel a band this niche – whose look screams “go away,” and whose music videos pay homage to bloody Nosferatu of all things–to the level of fame where they only need to commit to one effing show to be bigger than Elvis.
One of the best, and by extension most ludicrous, scenes in Queen of the Damned takes place at a press conference filled with eager journalists who get approximately five minutes to chat to Lestat, who’s appearing via video-link because he can’t be in a room full of humans lest he eat them all. There’s no logic to this sequence, it doesn’t add anything to the story or even move it along, and it’s also among the goofiest moments in a movie that takes itself so seriously there’s a speech about a “kingdom of corpses” delivered with utmost sincerity. And yet, it’s perfect. The dimly lit room–some kind of dungeon, somewhere in the U.K.?–stuffed with reporters who don’t believe Lestat is really a vampire, yet treat him like royalty regardless–doesn’t resemble a real-life press junket in any recognizable way. But, in a world where a vampire-led metal band rockets to the top of the charts, it obviously makes complete sense.
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Queen of the Damned hooks gloomy alt kids in right away with a roving camera moving through a smoke-filled graveyard before landing on a stone tomb, out of which long, pointy nails seductively emerge as Lestat is woken from his years-long slumber by something that sounds, in his bizarre Transylvania by way of Tommy Wiseau accent, “bettuuuuur.” The noise in question is being made by some super-hot, and super-skinny goth kids who for whatever reason only play instrumental stuff. In a dilapidated house once owned by a vampire. At night. It’s not clear where vampires shop in this movie, but we can reasonably assume Lestat stole the clothes of the pimp/drug dealer he feeds on down by the docks (he’s allegedly in New Orleans, at least in the beginning) because, after waking up wearing fifty layers of dusty old traditional garb, he’s somehow sporting an all-leather outfit including a shirt that’s unbuttoned to reveal marble-white abs of which Edward Cullen would be jealous. Worryingly, the bald kid in the band is about as pale as Lestat, so he probably needs to check his iron levels.
Lestat was the original sexy vampire, less constipated and more worldly than the drippy Edward, and he’s even hotter here, as portrayed by Townsend, than when Tom Cruise played him in Interview with the Vampire (Cruise opted not to reprise the role, shockingly). There’s an anarchy to this Lestat that makes it easier to understand why the otherwise level-headed Jesse (Marguerite Moreau) falls so hard for him, enough to start shopping in Hot Topic and hop on a plane to L.A. and be accosted by a cameoing Davis as a ticket scalper. Early on, Rice complimented Townsend for possessing the character’s “feline grace,” which makes sense when he’s climbing the walls and waiting to pounce, for instance. It’s a committed performance, oozing with charisma and the pain of living forever with nobody to hang out with–as emo as it sounds, his struggle is universally relatable.
Notably, Townsend’s career never quite took off the way many critics believed it would. Aside from appearing in the ill-fated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he struggled to find his footing in the industry and was dogged by damning accusations of domestic abuse. These days, Townsend is something of a conspiracy theorist, though at least he’s aging well. Looking back at QOTD, and the kind of preparation he did to play Lestat–which included learning to play the violin–-it’s wild Townsend’s career stalled the way it did.
The other big news story, casting-wise, was of course the untimely death of Aaliyah, shortly after the completion of principle photography. Her brother, Rashad Haughton, completed ADR for the movie. The singer turned actor, who only had one other role to her name (Romeo Must Die) prior, makes mincemeat of her short screen-time, with Akasha’s costume understandably inspiring Black cosplayers to this day (partly because they don’t have much else to choose from). The styling is gorgeous throughout, and so over the top, from Jesse’s red shirt with gold leaf detailing to the many fabulous coats sported by the old-school vampires (seriously, where do they shop?). It’s highly considered too, with Jesse sporting a sparkly choker once she gets into alt drag, to stalk Lestat in L.A., since the wannabe “London goth” is still too much of a normie to wear a spiky dog collar.
When the vampires descend on Lestat’s concert, they’re shot standing still amongst the moshing crowds in a neat visual trick, but they otherwise blend in perfectly amongst the revellers, who dress much the same. There is a touch of early 2000s sensibility to some of the costuming though, particularly the super low-rise pants that threaten to display everyone’s nether regions. There are a lot of incredibly flat tummies on display too, as was the style of the time thanks to the likes of Britney Spears. The terrific set design matches the film’s over-the-top aesthetic perfectly, from Marius’s Mediterranean villa to Lestat’s Glastonbury compound, which boasts leopard print furniture. Later, his mentor tells Lestat he was easy to find in L.A. by simply looking for “the most gauche house on the block.” In this world, being a vampire is cool and sexy, even if you can’t go out during the day–and really, why would you want to when there’s a club in the backstreets of London playing Tricky all night long?
Rice was a master world-builder, and although Queen of the Damned isn’t exactly her vision–the movie attempts to condense the stories of two different books together and ultimately fails to do justice to either. But there’s a real attention to detail here, at least when it comes to establishing who these creatures are and how they fit into the world. Of course, vampires need hobbies to pass the time, whether it’s Marius painting or Lestat playing the violin, but it’s also understandable why the younger vamp believes, “I was meant for more than this.” Sure, he’s arrogant, but immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you have to spend it not just alone but, as Lestat realizes with deadening clarity, not even being known either. The fact he spends much of the movie trying to, essentially, commit vampire suicide is kind of sad, but it’s easier to relate to than flying around biting people’s necks (side note: you cannot move for vampires in QOTD – truly, they’re everywhere).
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The movie has aged in understandable ways, with the use of a classic red Nokia cell phone standing out in particular, while the shot of Akasha emerging from the flames is dodgy, but more often than not, QOTD is impressively tactile. Even more so than Twilight, where the flying looks dodgier and the argument for wanting to be turned makes far less sense. It’s still goofy AF, and deathly earnest, but there are some good jokes, including the aforementioned Elvis back-and-forth and Lestat’s manager, Roger, reassuring a young female fan who’s just escaped his clutches, much to her dismay, “It’s a good thing.” Especially compared to its more buttoned-up predecessor, Queen of the Damned is light on its feet.
In this world, the difference between good and bad vampires is that the latter feast on immortals as well as humans. Their real enemies, aside from Akasha of course, are the fusty, old white Brits of the Talamasca, a fictional secret society formed to document creatures of the night but never engage with them (sounds fun!). Amongst these boring old farts, Jesse is a renegade with her bottle-red hair and multiple ear piercings. No wonder she’s so desperate to leave humans behind and shack up with her adopted vampire family. Certain important backstory is missing with Maharet (the great Lena Olin, gifted the elusive “and” here) that makes it difficult to ascertain why Akasha has an issue with her, never mind why Jesse was raised by vampires in the first place. But it all works out in the end, because Jesse is much hotter as a vampire and even has better hair! Success!
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Queen of the Damned is a silly film, that goes without saying, but it still deserves more respect, even just as a one-of-a-kind vampire movie that understands, crucially, why we still care about these creatures in the first place. The thing is beautifully shot and scored, with leitmotifs of Jonathan Davis’s killer track “Forsaken” overlaid throughout, and there are plenty of genuinely impressive moments such as when Lestat slowly emerges out of the shadows, or even his band’s gig, which feels as epic and exciting as a real metal show. The performances are great, with the scenes between Vincent Perez’s Marius and Lestat standing out, while the sole sex scene–how can a movie this horny only have one!?–makes a compelling case for every future sex scene being scored by the mighty Deftones. Hell, the sex is so good they levitate off the bed. Take that, Bella and Edward’s bed-breaking yet somehow utterly vanilla honeymoon shenanigans.
Vampires have always been cool, sexy, and enticing, but the Twilight saga neutered them to an incredibly soul-crushing extent. Watching QOTD feels like a necessary corrective, because despite everything that’s demonstrably goofy and truly insane about it, there’s no denying how bloody cool this movie is, particularly if you’re a spooky kid. The action takes place predominantly in London and L.A., two of the hippest cities in the world, the makeup and costuming still rule, even 20 years later, and despite Townsend’s sad move into the conspiracy theorist sphere, his Lestat is still dripping with sex appeal and oozing with charisma. Watching QOTD is like transporting yourself back to a simpler time, of too much black eyeliner and untapped teenage horniness. And for that, on its 20th birthday (which is today) it should be celebrated. If nothing else, that soundtrack remains unbeatable.