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Caught in Between 

Wow, Anne Rice just can't seem to get a break with her lusty Vampire Chronicles, at least on the big screen. First, there was all the hoopla and hype surrounding 1994's Interview With the Vampire, in which an all-star cast featuring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas fell under the spell of hot director Neil Jordan and never really woke up.

Now there's The Queen of the Damned, a project so ill-fated that at one point it was rumored that Warner Brothers had planned to release it direct to video. But then one of its stars, R&B singing sensation Aaliyah, died tragically in a plane crash last summer, and suddenly, The Queen of the Damned had a February release date. There's plenty more backstory to this unfortunate launch, but the actual product takes enough time to explain.

If Interview suffered from bad casting of big stars handicapping a good director, perhaps Damned suffers from bad casting of no stars handicapping a little-known director in Michael Rymer -- whose credits include the drug crime drama In Too Deep. And indeed he is, attempting to morph an element from Rice's intervening novel, The Vampire Lestat -- a challenge unto itself -- and at the time trying to simplify her third installment into a hip, slick, MTV-friendly 90-minute romp. That in itself is no crime; one could feel the weight pulling down Interview. But you can't have it both ways. If you're going for a visual feast alone, why deal with the complexities of Rice's storytelling? Throughout The Queen of the Damned, poor Rymer seems hopelessly caught in the middle.

Still, he finds time to inject some interesting elements of this story, which picks up with the restless Lestat (Stuart Townsend, who actually is better than Cruise) himself wanting to have it both ways as he wakes from his slumber and itching to walk among the mortals. He kind of digs their scene -- they have the heart he lacks -- and is curious about that whole 70-year time limit we have. But at the same time, Lestat's 400-year-old ego also craves absolute power absolutely. So, in flashbacks, we are shown that after he is "made" by Marius (Vincent Perez, looking utterly lost), he learns of someone even more powerful. Queen Akasha (Aaliyah), the mother of them all, knows what power looks like but is very particular about with whom she shares it.

Defying all vampire logic -- the cardinal rule is anonymity -- Lestat starts of all things a goth-rock band and brazenly outs himself to the world. This is by far the film's greatest conceit: the vampire as goth-rock star. Oh, if only Peter Murphy were available! After the expected instant fame, he taunts his fellow vampires to attend a massive concert -- in Death Valley, no less. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," he teases, letting the blood fall where it may.

Well, be careful what you wish for, because the freaks start coming out for the show, promising revenge on their egotistical big-mouth. Along the way to the show, Lestat is stalked by, and ultimately seduces, mortal babe Jessie (Marguerite Moreau), a cultural anthropologist of sorts who's got her own vampire secrets to tell. So as the third act begins, Lestat faces a moral/romantic/ego dilemma: hang with the virgin mortal or hope that Queen Akasha finds her backstage pass.

A neat little dilemma; if only Rymer, his scriptwriters or even the actors could rise to the challenge. Is there anyone here who "gets" vampires? Where are the British actors when you really need them? Nobody, it seems, knows how to capture the complexities of Rice's vampires in general or Lestat in particular. He is, after all, a bizarro mix of suave, uber-beauty and detached psychopathology. And when you throw in true inner conflict, well, that's a tough nut to crack. Townsend prefers to embrace the rock-star pose elements of his character and leave all the heavy lifting to the special-effects and music departments.

Indeed, even though the music's a little on the metal side -- Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis supplied the vocals -- the goth elements of The Queen of the Damned at least infuse a little fun into the confused proceedings. When Jessie tracks Lestat down to a hip London nightclub (what, no "Bela Legosi's Dead" on the jukebox?), the black clothing, death-ray stares and heavy eye makeup are just dying for Chris Kattan to show up with a flashlight.

As for the late Aaliyah, well, if slinking around in bronze body paint and sneering and hissing lines in a venomous tone are what was needed for the part, she nailed it. Not bad for a sophomore effort. But, she like so many of her co-stars, seems overwhelmed by it all, trying to make sense of her character and the story before everything whizzes by.

And so Anne Rice's vampires remain curious creatures on the screen. The Queen of the Damned doesn't suck, but there's very little bite to it, either.

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