Directed by Paul Weitz; screenplay by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, from the series of books by Darren Shan.
Hey, you know what we really need? Another teenage vampire epic, but with, like, really weird looking folks populating the cast. And maybe we can tie up the fate of the supernatural world in the conflict between two best friends turned (im)mortal enemies. Think a tweener Tru Blood (without all the sex) by way of Freaks, or better yet, a Twilight saga for teenage boys, without all the icky romantic torment and gooey longing and emo-vampires.
There’s plenty of other references I could call to mind in describing Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant: the dark carnival riding into town out of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which turns out to be a refuge for outcasts like the HBO series Carnivale, while there’s a conspiracy afoot to shatter the fragile truce between the (relatively) good and evil poles of the supernatural world that plays out an awful lot like Nightwatch.
That’s not to say that this film, adapted from the first couple of novels in the series by Darren Shan, is in any way inspired by/ripped off from any of the above-mentioned films. It’s just that the whole supernatural franchise thing itself is awfully derivative. The wellspring reaches back to Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (the books, not the movies, themselves drawn for the myths and legends of numerous cultures and religions) and should, conceivably, continue in new variations forever, the classic conflicts reworked for the social worlds of each new epoch. But at the moment it’s running dry as every publisher and film studio looks for its own series and ends up redressing the same archetypes without coming up with any fresh stories.
Here the conflict is pretty simple: good kid Darren (Chris Massoglia), a meek teenager with good grades and a fascination with spiders, and bad influence Steve (Josh Hutcherson), a vampire-obsessed juvenile delinquent from a broken home, are complete opposites and best friends destined for epic conflict. Their fates are sealed after they sneak out for the forbidden spectacle of a traveling freak show. Darren sacrifices his humanity and his safe, predictable life as he knows it to save Steve from a deadly spider bite, faking his death to join the circus as the half-vampire servant of full vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). In the generically quirky community of the Cirque du Freak winter camp, that makes him pretty much the most “normal” guy there.
In this rewriting of the bloodsucker culture, vampires no longer kill humans and vampanese do. Steve is royally POed when he finds out and responds by joining the rival vampanese, the old-school crowd that still subscribes to the predatory drive, and embraces the feral code with a passion that neither the actor nor the film makes the least bit convincing. The budding delinquent leaps from frustrated, destructive kid to superpowered sociopath less out of homicidal fury or misanthropic arrogance than a royal huff, piqued that Darren not only kept the whole faking-his-death whole thing a secret, but stole his dream of becoming a vampire. At least Josh Hutcherson brings a little moxie to the underwritten character. Darren is a wet blanket and Chris Massoglia never manages to fill his experience with the thrill of the forbidden, be it fear, curiosity and just plain confusion. These kids are supposed to be the poles around which the final conflict of the story “that is already written down” by creepy puppetmaster Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) revolves, but they feel like unlucky bystanders picked at random to fill the roles.
At least John C. Reilly is fun to watch as Crepsley, a world weary vampire who embraces the showmanship of his freak show magician identity and plays the sardonic and sarcastic dialogue with a mix of deadpan apathy and reluctant heroism. The rest of it—from the colorfully generic circus folk defined more by the special effects of their appearance than any contrived personality to Darren’s resistance to embracing his new identity and his amiably weird new family—is all window dressing. This is no circus, it’s a sideshow with no main attraction. Even the sight of Salma Hayek as Madame Truska, the bearded lady and circus seer, sprouting a fresh set of whiskers whenever she gets aroused comes off as just another distraction. Not just from the utter conventionality of the story, but the lack of anything substantive at stake. For all the shadows and nocturnal imagery there is no darkness to the story, no fear of loss of life or soul and no resonance to those few lives actually lost on screen. Coming from the director of About a Boy and the screenwriter of Mystic River and L.A. Confidential, that’s not just disappointing, it’s downright lazy.
By the time the credits rolled, I realized that I had just watched a feature-length prologue to a plodding supernatural epic / coming of age adventure that, apocalyptic struggle or not, I’m not the least bit invested in. I wonder if Madame Truska would see a sequel in the future of this film franchise. I sure don’t.
Postscript (aka thoughts since finishing the review, and spoilers be damned)
Being a PG-13 movie may have hindered possibilities, but this film feels like it was commiteed into blandness before any ratings elisions. At least I’d like to think so, given the folks involved in it, though I confess that Helgeland and Weitz both have spotty track records and more than enough evidence of caving under studio pressure. But when all is said and done, I still have one piece of advice to our Darren, a teen so cautious that he barely registers on screen: dude, you have a girlfriend with a monkey tale. In the words of Tony Robert’s Rob in Annie Hall: Think of the possibilities.