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Cirque Du Freak:
The Vampire's Assistant

Remember 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.

Cirque 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 still survive.

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 vampire war.

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.

You 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?

Not 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.

Their 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.

The 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?)

I 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.


Matt Sameck

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