October 21, 2009

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

ADVENTURE/HORROR:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-10-23

Running Length:

1:48

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2:35:1

Cast:

Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, John C. Reilly, Jessica Carlson, Patrick Fugit, Ray Stevenson, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Michael Cerveris

Director:

Paul Weitz

Screenplay:

Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, based on the books by Darren Shan

Cinematography:

J. Michael Muro

Music:

Stephen Trask

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Is it too much to ask that a narrative film have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Apparently in the case of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, a loose adaptation of Darren Shan's Vampire Blood trilogy, the answer is "yes." Developed with the intention of being the first installment of a franchise, the movie doesn't pretend to be self-contained, leaving frayed loose ends and resolving little. This alone makes The Vampire's Assistant a profoundly unsatisfying experience - and that doesn't consider the derivative nature of the plot and a lackluster performance by the lead actor.

It would greatly surprise me if there is ever a sequel to The Vampire's Assistant. A recognition of this forces the movie to stand on its own, which it cannot do. In an era when vampires are insanely popular, Universal's lack of confidence in the production speaks volumes. The original release date was pushed back and the studio is doing the bare minimum to promote it. This has all the earmarks of something that will play for about two weeks around Halloween before heading for home video, where it will vanish into obscurity. Those curious about "what happens next" will have to read the books (there are twelve of them). Ironically, director Paul Weitz appears to have been ensnared by the same issue that trapped his brother, Chris, whose cinematic version of The Golden Compass crashed and burned, leaving Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials saga partially told.

The Vampire's Assistant represents yet another attempt to defang vampires. Apparently, there are no longer any rules - writers can create the undead in whatever fashion they want, discarding unwanted aspects of the mythos. Of all the recent cinematic bastardizations of the vampire, only the Twilight version has been meeker. The vampires in this movie drink blood, but without hurting their victims (they don't have fangs). They age, but very slowly. They're involved in an intra-species war (that's currently being interrupted by an uneasy truce). "Full" vampires don't like sunlight, but "half" vampires are okay with it. They can move really fast but can't fly or shape-change. Crosses and garlic don't bother them. And, of course, they are to be pitied rather than feared or hated.

The film's central character is Darren (Chris Massoglia), an arachnophile who steals a rare breed of spider from the vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). When the spider delivers a fatal bite to Darren's best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), Darren must make a deal with the vampire to save Steve's life: in exchange for Larten administering the anti-venom to Steve, Darren agrees to become a "half-vampire" and function as Larten's assistant. This forces him to "die" to his friends and family and continue his existence living with the performers of the "Cirque du Freak." But there's a war brewing between the vampires and their bloodthirsty cousins, the Vampeneze, and both Darren and Steve have parts to play.

Much of the film unfolds like a superhero story, with Darren undergoing a transformation, spending time rejecting his new abilities, then eventually learning about them and embracing them. In reality, he has more in common with Spider-Man than with Dracula. As superhero narratives go, however, this one is sloppy and uninspired. The climactic confrontation is a sham; I guess we are expected to wait for future installments to see a real resolution. Meanwhile, any hints of horror - a reasonable expectation considering that the main character is a vampire - are neutered to the point of irrelevancy. Then again, it's pretty hard to accomplish anything graphic and maintain a PG-13 rating.

Although John C. Reilly and Willem Dafoe are amusing as vampires and Salma Hayek is strangely erotic as a bearded woman, the two leads are miscast. As Darren, Chris Massoglia is boring. His portrayal is not only unsympathetic, it's uninteresting. We are supposed to be invested in Darren, but Massoglia's portrayal encourages apathy. Josh Hutcherson isn't much better. He plays Steve like a bully on a TV sit-com, and is almost a clone of the alienated teenager who is turned into a vampire in Fright Night. At least there are some interesting names in the supporting cast - Ray Stevenson as Murlaugh the Vampaneze, Michael Cerveris as Mr. Tiny, Jessica Carlson as Rebecca the monkey girl, Patrick Fugit as Evra the snake boy, and Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall.

Arguably, the most intriguing aspect of The Vampire's Assistant is its exploration of the society of freaks and how Darren is integrated as a member. He becomes friends with the snake boy and falls in love with the girl with the prehensile tail. Unfortunately, the special effects are shoddy, so the freaks more often look like obvious CGI creations than real carnival outcasts. If that was the only problem with The Vampire's Assistant, there wouldn't be much to complain about, but this movie is undone by a legion of flaws, the most glaring of which is its inability to build to a conclusion. It stops in the middle, expecting viewers to wait for the next installment, which will probably never arrive. That makes it not only a waste of time, but a tease.

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