The Thin Line Between Comedy and Farce

by Arthur B

Movies about vampire rock stars are very difficult to take seriously.
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So, here’s a little compare and contrast: we have two movies taking as their basis the idea that a vampire ends up in the lineup of a failing rock band and ends up taking it to the top of the charts thanks to their mystical vampire charisma. Both films are hilarious, but only one is intentionally so; both films present themselves has having at least some horror component, but only one is scary. One of them is a deliberate parody, the other descends into self-parody. One of them has an entire scene taking place in front of a massive picture of a major character’s crotch, the other doesn’t.

The films we are looking at are 2002’s Queen of the Damned and 2009’s Suck. How do you tell them apart? Well, one of them has Canadians...

Queen of the Damned


So, the vampire Lestat (Stuart Townsend) - AKA the guy that Tom Cruise plays in Interview of the Vampire who wrests "main character" status from Louis after book 1 of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles - opens the movie with a bit of exposition. It seems that once upon a time he got awfully bored of living forever, so he went into vampiric hibernation fully intending never to wake up again. After a century, however, he was woken up by the curious sounds of the modern age. To be more specific, he was literally brought back from the grave by the power of rock music. To be even more specific, he was reanimated by horrible third-rate metal with mild goth and industrial affectations of the sort that might have qualified the film as hip had it come out in the 1990s instead of 2002, when everyone had already gotten over Marilyn Manson and Stabbing Westward. The upshot of the uninspiring musical choices on the part of the director is that the band who accidentally wake up Lestat come across not as the eye-opening, vampire-awakening sound of a new era but as the tin-eared tintinnabulation of too many tryhards trying too hard.

This is a big problem, because the specific band draws Lestat’s attention, having turned his old New Orleans pad into a practice space, ends up being his backing band. Demonstrating his supernatural powers to them (specifically, a bit of Celerity in Vampire: the Masquerade terms), Lestat outs himself as a vampire and declares himself their new lead singer, and somehow the scene doesn’t write them off as yet another dull gimmick band and they become really big and eat groupies on multiple continents. The result of this is that we have to hear the band's music (and Lestat's awful singing) interspersed throughout the entire movie.

Had it ended there, with the whole world taking leave of good taste and falling under the sway of a really mediocre band, that'd be one thing, but there's further complications. For instance, there's Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), an apprentice in the Talamasca (a secret society dedicated to observing the activities of vampires for reasons which we are never let in on) who twigs that Lestat’s lyrics are alluding to genuine secrets of the vampire underground. Her Talamasca superiors warn her off investigating more closely, but for some reason - perhaps tied into her mysterious family past which the film does an atrociously poor job of filling us in on - Jesse finds herself drawn into the world of the vampires. The timing is poor, for Lestat’s music has not only riled up the world’s vampires who are pissed off that the Masquerade (not referred to by that name) is being broken through his overt declaration of vampiric secrets, but Akasha (Aaliyah), the ancient Queen of the Vampires, has been awoken from her sleep of centuries - and she intends to make Lestat her right-hand man in the conquest of the world.

Queen of the Damned makes a huge problem for itself, as far as sequels to Interview of the Vampire go, in the sense that the filmmakers decided to skip an entire novel in the series (The Vampire Lestat), robbing Queen of a lot of context. Most of the important events from that are recounted in a vastly streamlined and simplified form during a long flashback sequence, presented as J reads Lestat’s diary, but this solution is somewhat awkward - it’s long enough to make you lose the thread of what’s been going on in the modern day, slow enough to bore you, and abbreviated enough that it still feels like a confused summary of a mythology two orders of magnitude more complex than it really needs to be.

Other risible sequences include Jesse’s investigation of The Admiral’s Arms, which falls into the trap so many films from this era fell into by imagining that going to a goth/industrial nightclub is in any way intimidating or scary. In fact, in general Queen of the Damned depends more on indulging silly myths about the musical scene Lestat is supposedly a part of (admittedly, myths which originate both inside of and outside of that scene) than depicting anything resembling reality. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that - the world of the Blade movies doesn’t live very close to reality either - but the departure from a realistic depiction of the modern day needs to be accompanied by a sufficiently compelling unreality to make us suspend our disbelief, and Queen of the Damned doesn’t have anything particularly compelling to replace reality with.

(Indeed, the mixture of genuine vampires and utter posers who litter the audience of Lestat's big Death Valley gig adds a contradictory twist to the whole deal: it's like only the actual vampires are allowed to be cool and everyone else looks like a pasty nerd in a bad Dracula costume, but surely then the goth scene would be a terrible place for vampires to hide in if you could instantly work out who's a vampire by homing in on the people who actually look cool.)

Most of all, in fact, the world of Queen of the Damned resembles nothing more than a self-aggrandising, masturbatory fantasy of Lestat’s. He awakens in the modern world and fits in without any trouble - in fact, there’s a niche carved out for him, and as soon as he slides into that niche the entire world starts revolving around him and his music. Even the return of a goddess is both inspired by Lestat, and her agenda revolves around how much she digs Lestat. A scene in which Lestat and his vampiric sire Marius have a heart-to-heart sat in front of a billboard depicting an enormous blown-up photograph of Lestat’s crotch provides an instant visual summation of the overall style of this movie.

Now, this might work in the format of a novel. Right from Interview With the Vampire onwards, both in the novel and the movie, it’s established that Lestat is enormously self-centred and shallow and doesn’t really give two shits about anything other than his own personal pleasure and convenience. This makes sense in Interview because he’s meant to be a character who absolutely accepts the vampiric condition and therefore is both happier than Louis and much more of a monster than Louis is, whereas Louis is much more concerned with trying to live a life his conscience can accept and therefore cannot ever be as glibly accepting of being a predatory killer as Lestat is.

In a novel that is entirely narrated by Lestat, the rampaging egotism on display here would make absolute sense. Even in a film which were entirely narrated by him and was explicitly and obviously meant to be told entirely from his point of view, it would make sense. It doesn’t make sense in a movie where we regularly get shown scenes which Lestat was never present for (and therefore can’t possibly be told from his point of view), and it especially doesn’t make sense where Lestat is explicitly not the only narrator - Jessie narrates some portions, and Lestat still ends up central to those.

What truly compounds the error here is the casting. Stuart Townsend as Lestat is just a disaster. I mean, Tom Cruise overacted a little in the role in the original film, but at least he didn’t act like an utterly cartoonish poser of the sort who’d be laughed out of any goth club he went to in real life. (Even more risibly, Townsend kind of acts like that in the flashback too.) Townsend is like the Lestat who’s emerged from someone’s first attempt at Vampire Chronicles fan fiction that they’re now deeply, deeply embarrassed about. It’s even worse now because somehow he looks like Edward from Twilight even though Edward from Twilight wasn’t a thing when this movie was made. (To add insult of injury, what snippets we get of Lestat’s music are just awful.)

There’s a press conference early on where one of Lestat’s responses to a sceptical journalist is meant to sound like a threat to track her down and drink her blood, which would be bad enough, but with the delivery it just sounds like an overt rape threat. Somehow, he gets away with that without being pilloried by the media in general. It simply isn’t believable that Townsend’s Lestat has sufficient charisma to win over the press conference to an extent that the journos don’t cry foul at the rape threat, and if we can’t even see what the world in general sees in Lestat, we certainly can’t fathom what Akasha sees in him.

For her part, Aaliyah chews the scenery like mad as Akasha, but frankly when you’re playing an immortal vampire goddess from the dawn of time scenery-chewing is precisely what’s called for and I think she does just fine with the script that’s given her. As for Moreau as Jesse, she doesn’t entirely seem to understand what she is doing but that’s fine because her subplot doesn’t actually make very much sense at all, to the point where after the big Lestat gig in Death Valley she gets magically transported to meet a secret society of vampires whose agenda seems to be based around a family tree and opposes Akasha because… hm. Well, it’s never properly explained. Maybe they’re just racist or something.

Suck


There’s something endearing about a vampire movie from 2009 which isn’t afraid to have the first vampire onscreen a) first appear as a flappity puppet-bat flying towards what is obviously a cardboard model of Montreal, and b) transform into the impressively ugly Queeny (Dimitri Coates). Entering a bar, Queeny happens to catch a performance by struggling, ironically-named Generic Rock band The Winners, consisting of Joey Winner (Rob Stefaniuk, who also wrote and directed) as frontman, Jennifer (Jessica Paré) on bass, Tyler (Paul Anthony) on lead guitar and Sam (Mike Lobel) on drums, with their hapless French-Canadian lackey Hugo (Chris Ratz) as their roadie. Catching the eye of Jennifer, Queeny takes her off to a vampire party where there’s better music and ambience and also turns her into a vampire.

Now, Jennifer is a bit better at this whole “not breaking the Masquerade” thing than Lestat, so when she finally catches up to the rest of the band in Toronto she doesn’t mention being a vampire. Of course, the fact that she’s now pale as alabaster, with this vivid blood-red tint to her hair and lips, and people have a weird way of disappearing around her might be a bit of a tip-off. Still, the band are accepting, tolerant 21st Century sorts, so they’re happy to accept Jennifer as she is (particularly considering the way her vampiric charisma is really helping the band make its mark finally), so long as there’s a collective agreement that no other band member is to go vampire. Soon enough they’ve more or less all broken the agreement - which makes things awkward, considering that they are being stalked by cranky vampire hunter Eddie Van Helsing (Malcolm McDowell, who also appears as a 30 years younger version of himself thanks for some cleverly edited-in footage from his 1973 film O Lucky Man!).

Realising that the whole vampire thing has gone out of hand, the band realise it’s time for them to kick the habit - but the only way to do that is to join forces with Eddie and take down Queeny. But if they conquer the horrors of both the touring life and the vampire underground, can they endure what middle-class suburban normality brings to the table?

So, being a rock and roll vampire comedy, Suck needs to bring several things to the table to succeed, and part of that involves understanding rock music a little better than Queen of the Damned did. This it does; the licensed music on the soundtrack is expertly chosen, the Winners’ music is just bland and generic enough to make their utter failure to gain any traction completely believable, and Queeny’s songs are usually a treat. On top of that, the film is crammed to the gills with little rock in-jokes, like a bit where Jennifer and her amplifer are outlined in a golden aura like on the cover of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior (not to mention the inevitable Abbey Road parody, a clever recreation at the US-Canada border controls of the cover to Springsteen’s Born In the USA... in fact, spotting the album covers Stefaniuk sneaks into proceedings is a joy in itself.

On top of that, it’s a rare case of a movie which goes out of its way to bring in rock musicians as guest stars and finds roles for them that actually makes sense for their personas. Henry Rollins as Rockin’ Roger, an abrasive radio DJ who interviews the band and absolutely cannot believe their bullshit makes sense considering how direct Rollins typically is in his spoken word recordings. Iggy Pop as Victor, violently paranoid studio owner they visit to record some material on the road who’s seen enough crazy shit in his own musical career that he instantly susses out what the deal with Jennifer is and tells Joey things he doesn’t want to hear makes absolute sense, because Iggy really has seen everything in his career and if he tells you something is a bad idea then you better fucking listen to him. Alice Cooper as a vampire bartender from the bar at the start of the film who gives Joey some sage advice and ends up making occasional additional appearances as a sort of guardian angel for the band (or just a more competent vampire who wants to show them how to do it right) makes sense because if you want to pick anyone to be your rock music patron demon Cooper’s a great pick. Moby as Beef Bellows, the coarse frontman for the band Secretaries of Steak (whose fans pelt them with raw meat during their shows), does a great job of presenting a character who is a complete inversion of the meek vegan Moby typically presents himself as. (OK, Alex Lifeson from Rush as a scary US border control officer makes less sense, but he’s previously shown through his appearances on Trailer Park Boys that he actually has something of a knack for comedy so his guest spot pans out fine in the long run.)

The film also brings to the table a really neat visual style (into which the one-off shots of famed album covers fit weirdly perfectly), taking place in a cartoon universe of vivid colours and hilariously cheap model shots depicting the band’s travels into increasingly weird territory. A nice feature is the way the vampires’ makeup declines and makes them look more sickly and corpselike the longer they go without blood.

The biggest success of Suck, though, is that it’s a horror-comedy manages to work in both sides of the equation. The scene with Jennifer stabbing a convenience store clerk with a store and drinking his blood through it manages to be one of several which are both horrifying and comedic, both on purpose, as opposed to Queen of the Damned which is both unintentionally comedic and doesn’t really seem to be trying to be scary either. Damned, if anything, is more of a modern-day fantasy adventure story, with vampires as superheroes with blood-themed powers, though to its shame it can’t even offer a vampire fight with better action and more tension than the climactic fight in Suck. Thank you, Canada, for showing Hollywood how to do it right.
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