Based on a book series by Darren Shan (which is also the name of the lead character), Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant has a good cast and story but barely keeps its head above water as poor direction, with a lack of understanding the material, takes its toll.
After recognising Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) as a vampire during a traveling freak show performance, and stealing his pet spider afterward, the lives of Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), and his bad-influence friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), change forever. The boys’ lives take a turn for the unnatural as Darren becomes a half-vampire to save his friend, Steve, who in turn teams up with Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a mysterious fellow up to no good, although it’s not clear to what extent.
I was reminded of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s 1988 offering, as it deals with a similar balance of dark and light, drama and comedy, but to better effect than found here. Tim Burton, or Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Coraline (2009)), would have been better choices to handle this material. Also, Danny Elfman’s score would have put the much-needed final nail in the coffin as the current score sounds like it’s from the vaults of Disney. It isn’t until later that the score catches up to the mood. Geared toward teens, but handled too lightly, there’s a lack of depth in the film’s darkness.
There were other minor problems in the film. A few edits felt sudden, like an unintentional jump-cut to the next scene. Although the cinematography was generally good, there were a few unusual angles and transitions that felt clumsy. There was a lack of gritty depth as the characters and settings were often too clean in appearance. The film needed, what I imagine Terry Gilliam says on the set of every one of his films, “More dirt, more filth!”
Despite these shortcomings, the actors and actresses are good in their roles. Especially Willem Dafoe, as Gavner Purl, who looks and sounds like he’s channeling Vincent Price and John Waters, with a hint of Mel Brooks. John C. Reilly proves a suitable vampire as Crepsley, who makes it clear to Darren that turning into a bat is “bullshit”. Michael Cerveris is good in the role of Mr. Tiny, but I found myself wondering what Glenn Shadix (best known for his great performance as Otho in Beetlejuice) would have done with the role. Let’s not forget the lovely, and talented, Salma Hayek, who plays Crepsley’s sometimes bearded girlfriend, Madame Truska, who can catch glimpses of the future. Ken Wantanabe is great, and exceptionally odd-looking, as Mr. Tall, the insightful, peacekeeping leader of the freak show. For those, like myself, who wondered what happened to Patrick Fugit since his great performances in Almost Famous (2000) and Saved! (2004), I’m pleased to announce he exercises his acting chops here as Evra the Snake Boy, who just wants to play music, if only he could keep his snake from eating his equipment. Although the younger cast is not as impressive as the veterans, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, and Jessica Carlson (Rebecca) show promise, and should be watched for in the future.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is appealing, and it’s fun to watch some of my favorite actors at work in an intriguing story, but the lack of direction and understanding of the material on the part of the filmmakers, makes it a little difficult to swallow.
Director: Paul Weitz
Writer: Paul Weitz (screenplay), Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Darren Shan (series of books)
Cast: John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Morgan Saylor, Don McManus, Colleen Camp, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek
Runtime: 109 minutes