Darren Shan is a normal teen living a suburban lifestyle. He has good parents, gets good grades, and is popular at school. He’s best friends with Steve who is pretty much his opposite in every respect. Steve is the bad influence that always gets Darren in trouble, but they get along well.
One night, Steve convinces Darren to sneak out and attend the “Cirque Du Freak,” a one night only freak show held in an abandoned theater. The boys go and end up seeing an astonishing variety of freaks with supernatural abilities. But the main attraction for them is Larten Crepsley and his exotic spider named Octa. Steve immediately identifies Crepsley as a vampire. Secretly, he hopes he can become a vampire, too.
Through a series of odd events, Darren steals Octa from Crepsley and the spider bites Steve, bringing him to the brink of death. Out of intense guilt, Darren reaches a deal with the 200-year-old vampire. In exchange for the spider antidote, Darren will become a half vampire and assistant for Crepsley. Unfortunately, this means abandoning his family, his friends, and his former life and entering a new and dangerous supernatural world.
“Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language.
The movie also takes the nearly worn out premise of vampires and does a few new things with them. Rather than ripping throats out of victims and looking goth and/or sexy, you get an un-sexy John C. Reilly as Larten Crepsley and scenes of him lightly striking people in order to draw blood. It’s not as flashy as other vampires, but it’s certainly more practical and definitely more like a real world vampire bat who opts for stealth over brute force.
I have to compliment the production design, too. The sets and costumes look great (though the dominance of pastels in the real world is a tad heavy handed). The special effects makeup is pretty good, too, particularly on Evra the Snake Boy. Willem Dafoe’s makeup for Gavner Purl is also amusing. His vampire character has makeup caked on his face, yet has a deathly pale neck. It helps add to the quirkiness of these vampires.
On the down side, “Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” has a bit of trouble settling on who its target audience is. While it appears rather light, there’s a fair amount of language in it. It seems like a character utters “s**t” or some variation of it every 5 to 10 minutes. That immediately makes it less appropriate for elementary age children. There are also some very intense themes and a few scary moments that make it inappropriate for them, too. It ends up being too dark for kids under 10, but it’s probably too light for teenagers who are more into “Twilight” or more intense horror fare. Adults will probably be mildly entertained by it, but I don’t think it’s enough of a draw to get them in the theaters. What you’re left with is a film that primarily appeals to people that read the books, and I don’t know if that’s enough to make it successful.
The film also has trouble settling on a tone. It has a bit of the supernatural wonder of “Harry Potter” and certainly attempts to paint a rich world with lots of layers like Rowling’s. It has a little bit of the surreal settings and fantastic sets of “Lemony Snicket” or “Big Fish.” It has a bit of the black humor and quirkiness of “Pushing Daisies.” The end result is a movie that’s trying to do too much and ultimately falls short of almost all of its goals. You keep rooting for it to succeed, but it fails to do so again and again. For example, the movie picks up steam when the freak show is unveiled, but the freaks end up being rather unimpressive (a poor looking werewolf, a guy with a big head, a guy with no torso) and the movie quickly departs from that realm. So the supernatural part ends up being rather uninteresting. It again picks up speed when Crepsley starts training Darren. There’s a lot of comedy and funny moments between the two characters. It starts feeling like a Marvel Superhero origin story and you start thinking, “Ah! So it’s a comedy! This can work.” However, that comedy and action is left behind soon enough. Everything in between these moments ends up being rather dull and that’s the bulk of the film. It also concludes by foreshadowing a lot of events in the next story, but you leave thinking, “The setup for the sequel sounded more interesting than this film.”
The story also feels a tad rushed. For example, when Darren leaves his family, it isn’t terribly convincing. The kid has an otherwise good home life, so him faking his death and leaving his family doesn’t come across as all that believable. You can understand why Steve (Josh Hutcherson) would embrace the vampire lifestyle when he reveals he comes from a broken home. But Darren’s transformation lacks that, and saving his friend doesn’t seem like that much of a motivation since Steve comes across mostly as a jerk. I think more time should have been spent on making Darren’s departure feel believable.
I also think “Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” may have been horribly miscast. Chris Massoglia looks good as Darren Shan, but his line delivery is terribly wooden. It gets more so towards the end of the movie. That’s not a good thing to have happen in the big climax. I’m still a bit on the fence about John C. Reilly as Larten Crepsley. If this had more comedic elements, I think he would have had more opportunities to shine. But his role calls for so much action and serious moments, you start to wonder what the character would have been like if another actor had been in the role. Among the supporting roles there are a lot of great actors and actresses, but most of them have very little screentime in the movie and no real time to make an impression.
In the end, “Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is required viewing for fans of the book. Despite all its flaws, this movie is a fun escape for a while and is worth giving a chance. It will be interesting to see if it earns a sequel.