Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)
A high school kid joins a strange traveling circus of sideshow freaks as he becomes a vampire’s protege and the central pawn in a vampire war.
This movie is a study in schizophrenic filmmaking: it should have a darker tone to match its look, closer to the Harry Potter series (especially the more recent entries), but it comes across as imitation Barry Sonnenfeld, like director Paul Weitz’s version of The Addams Family, especially in the wacky scenes with the hero’s family.
Relative newcomer Chris Massoglia plays Darren Shan, the bland high school kid, who with his best bud Steve (Josh Hutcherson) goes to Old Navy High School – at least everyone there dresses like they shop at that famous outfitter as they all wear khaki and pastel solids. I know they wanted to visually differentiate Darren’s old life with the more exotic, dangerous, and colorful life with the Cirque, but it just looks silly.
Darren is introduced to the lifestyle of the vampire, and his duties as assistant to Larter Crepsley (John C. Reilly) after striking a bargain with the stylish but still somewhat goofy vampire to save Steve’s life, after he is bitten by Crepsley’s pet super-spider. After he’s saved, the wayward Steve, who comes from a miserable broken home, is sucked into the world of the villainous and more than a bit weird Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a bald fat man who offers him everything he ever wanted.
A major problem with this movie is that, instead of focusing on telling a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end it is obviously setting things up for the other (hoped-for-by-the-producers) movies in the series (they condensed the first three books in a 12-part series for this one movie). I didn’t understand who the main villains were, what their beef was, or why I should care. There’s was much talk about a vampire war between the modern vampires who do not kill when they drink blood and the vampaneze (a really dumb sounding name) who do kill. But why is Mr. Tiny – who is not a vampire – involved in any of it? Is he the devil? A wizard? I found him more annoying that interesting (he seemed the most like an Addams Family cast off) He seems to know a lot, but never just spills the fucking beans, just talking around things (kind of like the baddies on Lost), but it appears to be one of those “it is written in the book of blah-blah-blah that two boys who were once friends, etc. etc.” I hate these “it is prophesied” stories. The bad guys are always so sure of themselves, but the good guys always win in the end.
The only real interesting character is Reilly’s Crepsley, a big reason probably being that we haven’t seen him do anything like this before. Massoglia is non-charismatic and instantly forgettable as Darren, while Hutcherson has the more interesting character arc of the two. Salma Hayek and Orlando Jones are among the actors who play the freaks but their physical attributes, a combination of make-up effects and CGI, are only slightly more interesting and memorable than the characters themselves. There’s also a goofy cameo by Willem Dafoe that was more a head scratcher than anything else, especially since he looked like Vincent Price complete with pencil thin mustache (although they reference another unseen character with that name). Twice he pops into the movie out of nowhere to deliver some info that’s probably relevant down the line in the sequel (which will never come), and then he leaves. It’s just weird and it doesn’t work.
Here is the theme behind what’s wrong with this movie: it’s afraid to embrace itself and truly be a freak. (I hope the filmmakers appreciate the irony.) Just as it starts to get creepy it turns away from that vibe. In the fight scenes, characters get mightily tossed around, but just as the viewer starts to get an adrenaline rush going, they stop, not wanting to go too far. The movie is afraid to embrace its true nature. It wants to play it safe and be all things to all people or in this case 8 year olds and their families, and 16 year olds and their friends. In the end, it serves no one.
At least out of all this mess there was one bright spot: about the only thing I did like was the music by Stephen Trask. Great main title score. He’s one to watch (and listen for).