The Vampire's Assistant
the game "telephone" from when you were a kid?
Sure you do. One person starts with a phrase and whispers
it to another. That person then whispers what they thought
they heard to the next person, and so on, and so on, down
the line. The fun of the game is seeing how different what
you end up with is from what you started with.
du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is much like a poorly-conceived
game of "telephone" using the subject of vampires
as its source. It's a vampire legend that has been watered
down after passing through so many different ears and filters
that only the most basic and boring elements of the story
In The Vampire's Assistant Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia)
is a normal teen-aged kid in a normal town who seems destined
to a normal life of college, work and family, in that order.
All this changes when he and his friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson)
are the recipients of an anonymous flyer for the 500-year-old
travelling "Cirque du Freak" freakshow. At the
show they discover the 200-year-old vampire Larten Crepsley
(John C. Reilly), who later turns Darren into a half-vampire
in exchange for saving Steve's life after he was bitten
by Crepsley's large, rare spider Madame Octa. Darren is
indoctrinated into the world of vampires and a long-standing
feud and tenuous truce between the peaceful vampires and
the violent, malevolent vampaneze. Soon Darren, Steve, and
everyone else find themselves to be pawns of the enigmatic
Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, who you may recognize as "The
Observer" from Fringe) in a plot to rekindle an all-out
This is a movie that desperately wants to be the beginning
of a franchise. The plot is based on the first three of
the twelve Cirque du Freak books from author Darren
Shan, and it shows. Not only is the movie working too hard
to try to set up an entire world you'll be interested in,
but it's also throwing in so many different plot points
that it becomes easy to get lost. It's like having all three
books described to you by a 15-year-old, where most of the
plot stays intact, but all emotion is completely drained
from the story.
This is vampirism watered down for the tween set that hasn't
been swooning over the Twilight Saga. In short,
boys. It looks to speak to all of the "fun" aspects
of being a vampire, like immortality, super-powers, and
independence, while skirting the more traditional "sexy"
aspects. The problem is that while the comical tongue-in-cheek
aspects of the movie are entertaining and handled well,
not only do they completely omit the parts that make being
a vampire dangerous (no doubt an attraction to the boys,
but not the parents), but they are very quickly mashed in
next to the parts of the movie that deal with the vampire
war and are trying to be serious.
can use the Harry Potter movies as a yardstick: Consider
that the Harry Potter movies didn't even start to get dark
and serious in tone until the third in the series, and even
that was done by an extremely skilled director in a film
the rest of the series has struggled to match. In The
Vampire's Assistant the mix of a neutered everyday
vampirism and a 200-year conflict try to occupy the same
space and end up distancing you from the movie.
It doesn't help that this movie has some strange, strange
casting. You can call the baby-faced John C. Reilly many
things, funny and vulnerable to name a few, but good vampire
fodder is not be one of them. True, the film is exploring
the more mundane and less sexy side of vampirism, but you
have to ask yourself: Is that really something we want to
see from John C. Reilly?
to mention the fact Willem Dafoe, playing Crepsley's old
ally, Gavner Purl, looks like Vincent Price and John Waters
had a vampire love-child. There are many times it becomes
difficult to tell if the actors are even taking this movie
seriously or not. The unfortunate fact is that most of the
vampires in the movie turn in a performance that falls somewhere
in between bored and dead. (Though I am impressed that any
of the skilled and respected actors in this movie managed
to say the word "vampaneze" on camera without
breaking out into a giggle-fit.)
For all the flaws in the movie, there are a few bright spots.
Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall, the Cirque ringleader, and most
of the "performers" from the Cirque du Freak proper
(including Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, and the always-funny
Kristen Schaal), are some of the more interesting and under-served
characters in the movie.
performances, however fleeting, put more character and relateability
into the film than anything Massoglia or Reilly manage to
do with the rest of the running time. Additionally, Michael
Cerveris' ironically-named Mr. Tiny, who must be so large
from chewing on all the scenery, is extremely fun to watch
as he revels in the unspoken chaos and discomfort he brings
to each of his scenes.
Vampire's Assistant has an interesting premise in trying
to look at the funny side of being a vampire, but it's trying
to do too much and be too serious too soon while making
obvious omissions to be kid-and-parent-friendly. To compound
the problem, in trying to be "normal" and "authentic"
vampires the principal players just appear bored. It's trying
to take advantage of all the heat being generated by vampire
stories right now, but in repackaging the legend for young
boys, the movie neuters it of everything that has made it
so alluring and timeless. (I mean, come on... The onset
of vampirism as puberty and adulthood? And you try do it
without sex!? Do you want me to write it for you?)
would say that subsequent movies should ditch the book's
saga in favor of the freaks' more interesting and personable
point of view, but, to be honest, I have to say that I don't
see "subsequent movies" being an issue.