Releasing in what has become the year of the vampire, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) is another film aimed squarely at the teen crowd, but it's one that takes itself far less seriously than some of its peers. Cirque du Freak, the first novel in The Saga of Darren Shan (by Darren Shan)—succeeded in turn by Takahiro Arai’s eponymous manga—seeks continued life in its filmic adaptation Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, which follows high-schooler Darren (Chris Massoglia) as he fakes his own death and joins a freak show as a vampire’s apprentice. Despite Darren’s good intentions, his friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) views this act as a betrayal, angry that Darren would leave him behind to an ordinary life. Neither of them realize that they are merely pawns in the burgeoning war between the vampires and the vampanese (what?). Well, as Steve notes later in the film, it's their "destiny or whatever."
It's sometimes hard to tell how much of this campy set-up is supposed to be tongue in cheek, but John C. Reilly as Crepsley the vampire is a real asset in this regard. His delivery brightens much of the picture's wooden dialogue and I wonder how much of a comedy it would be without his characterization, as scenes with the younger actors aren't nearly as fortunate in their charm. The freaks that make up the cast of the Cirque are largely recognizable actors—Patrick Fugit, Jane Krakowski and Salma Hayek, to name a few—but not many are given enough screen time to develop their performances. I will say that Hayek is eye-rollingly overplayed as a bearded clairvoyant, and similarly hammy is Willem Dafoe as Crepsley's vampire confidant, but I found his smarmy smile and pencil-thin moustache to be a relative joy in the two short moments he appears.
Brimming with prophecy and exposition, The Vampire's Assistant often manages to feel simultaneously bloated and empty. Most of the screenplay falls victim to the curse of countless past book-to-movie adaptations: too much story to cover in a reasonable running time. Moving from one necessary plot-point to the next lengthy expository speech, it's a story that promises more than it delivers, winking the whole while that everything will be subsequently revealed. When director Paul Weitz manages to reel back the pace and allows us to bask in the simple wackiness of the characters, the film fleetingly taps into the uncanny sensation of a magical world colliding with the real, but the illusion doesn't last long under a rigid breakneck pace.
If the planned sequels are allowed some breathing room—now that the set-up is out of the way—the Cirque du Freak series might yet have a chance of finding an audience. Amidst the crowded line-up of blood-suckers coming to theaters, this particular entry feels scattered and incomplete; but, I do appreciate the change of pace from the more customary pattern of children's films that insist on being nauseatingly wholesome. Though practically bloodless, The Vampire's Assistant still resides in a world that feels agreeably sinister. When Darren asks if his new vampire powers will allow him to turn into a bat, Crepsley sneers "No, that’s bull."
Now, there's an attitude I can get behind.
Cross-published on Ornery-Crosby and Twitch.