Dir Michael Rymer. US 2002. 100 min.

A new star is born in Queen Of The Damned, the horror picture based on Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles and a follow-up to Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire, which was also produced by Warner Bros. Assuming the role of Lestat (which Tom Cruise essayed with dubious results in the 1994 film) with gusto and a certain degree of camp, Irish newcomer Stuart Townsend creates the kind of powerhouse impression that major careers are based on. Queen Of The Damned is dedicated to the singer Aaliyah, who plays a small but important role, and who died in an air crash last August at the age of 22. Lacking the over-hype and pretensions of the first film, to be something bigger and higher than just an entertaining saga of vampires, the new picture benefits from a more down-to-earth approach and wonderful production design, resulting in a modest, intermittently enjoyable picture that's likely to appeal to young viewers, with stronger prospects to become a hot midnight item in major urban centres.

Truth to tell, despite Rice's change of heart (first criticising then endorsing leading man Cruise), the star was miscast in Interview With The Vampire. Lack of chemistry between Cruise and Brad Pitt, and the film's pompous dialogue and aspirations for symbolic meanings presented further obstacles to the overall success of a film that became an event more due to it reaching the screen after innumerable failed attempts and the behind-the-scene squabbles, than to the evidence shown onscreen.

In contrast, Queen Of The Damned operates within a much lower realm of narrative and aesthetics. Here, Rice's popular novel has been given a subversive, darkly voluptuous and humorous reading that occasionally fizzes with pulsating life. Indeed, Queen Of The Damned not only embraces but also relishes its borderline exploitational elements, primary the ostentatious costumes, lurid and for the most part captivating special effects, and rousing rock music. On many different levels, Queen Of The Damned is a suitable companion piece in a double bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to which it bears resemblance, even though Rymer's movie is not a horror spoof.

As the story begins, legendary vampire Lestat rises from a decades-long slumber, determined to step out into the light. No longer willing to be banished to the required shadows, or concealing his true essence among mortals, Lestat has reinvented himself as a rock star. Townsend is excellent at conveying the melancholy and malaise of a "sensitive" vampire, both unable and reluctant to be cut off from the life that sustains him. Entombing himself in New Orleans' Lafayette Cemetery, he waits for the 1990s to roll around, when he suddenly hears thunderously exciting rock music, played by a bunch of tattooed and pierced youths. Frustrated for two centuries with the restrictions of European society's rigid mores, the new subculture presents a fantastic, unparalleled act of liberation.

Effortlessly flaunting a contemporary sexy and androgynous look, Lestat, stripped to his waist and wearing tight black leather pants, realises that he can live out in the open in the new, more flamboyant, cynical, and decadent culture. Lestat's vampire prowess has given him great musical skills, which enables him to become a sensationally popular rock star around the world.

In a carefully detailed way, director Rymer and his scribes depict Lestat's family lineage: His ancient ancestor Marius (Perez), who had created him, and Akasha (Aaliyah), the mother of all vampires, who is safely kept in the crypt until she's exposed to Lestat's rousing music and global fame. Reluctantly slumbering for thousands of years, Akasha hears in Lestat's voice a kindred spirit, one to rule beside her as she threatens to reclaim her power in the new age. Easily lured, Lestat becomes the proverbial magician's apprentice, who unleashes forces way beyond his control.

Parallel to the vampire's story, which employs Lestat's sorrowful voice-over narration and smoothly navigates from one time period to another, there's a modern, fairytale-like fable, centring on a mortal girl, Jesse (Moreau), who matures to womanhood and falls under the spell of Lestat through her studies of ancient philosophy and paranormal activities. An orphan raised by a mysterious aunt (Olin), Jesse is a confused and lost woman until she meets Lestat, whose milieu feels like real home for the first time in her life.

While wildly celebrated by the mortals for his outrageous charisma, Lestat fast becomes the vampires' public enemy, violating the sacred rule of never disclosing to humans the secrets that have kept the vampires safe for generations. This new element, of positioning Lestat as a charmingly rebellious anti-hero, an adolescent who feels and acts upon his sexual instincts, will be cherished by young viewers should the picture reach them.

Unlike Interview With The Vampire, which established a new kind of family, composed of Cruise, Pitt, and a little girl (played by the young Kirsten Dunst), Queen Of The Damned is structured more along the lines of a love story between a vampire and a mortal woman.

The major problem of Rymer's film is not its cheesy, unregal title or even running time, but the fact that most of the vital information about the characters' history and their entangled relationships is conveyed in its first reel. Indeed, if Queen Of The Damned would have sustained the same impressive narrative tightness and technical control that it shows in the first half an hour, it would have been a wonderful picture. Unfortunately, the yarn gets more redundant as it unfolds, resulting in sequences that don't propel the action and are simply there to display at once gruesome and sensational special effects. This is particularly the case of Akasha's overly indulgent scenes, in which she's engaged in fierce battle with the other forces, which arrest the plot development and have a damaging effect on the rest of the film.

That said, whatever else is wrong with Queen Of The Damned - and a lot is - its central acting is beyond reprimand. In fact, the performances are arguably the picture's most solid and pleasing element. A cross between a Marilyn Manson-type character and Tim Curry's flamboyant transsexual in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Townsend (who previously appeared in Miramax's little-seen romantic comedy, About Adam, and the acclaimed indie, Wonderland) renders a forceful performance of intelligence, beauty and elegance, fully fleshing out his character as an alienated weirdo, a kinky creature who easily cast his spell over mortals and immortals.

Despite indulgences and excesses, Queen Of The Damned represents a major leap forward for Aussie helmer Rymer, who was acclaimed for his first feature, Angel Baby, but then made Perfume, a pale, pointless imitation of an Altman-like ensemble-driven mosaic piece about the fashion world.

Too bad that Queen Of The Damned, which may benefit from the curiosity factor of Aaliyah's turn and novelist Rice's reputation, doesn't enjoy the same highly-fuelled marketing drive that had helped Interview With The Vampire cross the $100m mark in the U.S. alone.

Pro co: Warner Bros. presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment of a Material production.
US dist: Warner Bros
Int'l dist: Warner Int'l
Exec prods: Su Arm