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Blu-ray Review: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

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My expectations were low. I had never heard of Darren Shan’s series books (a twelve-book franchise that began in 2000) that this film was based off of, and I was confused and on the verge of crying over the casting of John C. Reilly as a vampire. Worse still, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant had this sleazy sense of studio greed oozing about it. Some jokers at an indie studio managed to make a mint by adapting Stephanie Meyer’s nauseating teen-fave novel, Twilight (which came out in 2005), into an equally nauseating teen-fave movie. Nevermind the fact that said jokers (including Meyer) effectively managed to ruin the how vampires were portrayed in both literature and motion pictures in the process — they still made some mad money, dammit! And so, the big studios were on the lookout for something that they could make some mad money off of.

Something with teens and for teens.

Oh, and vampires, too.

Ta-da! I present to you Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, a film in which Universal Studio’s marketing gurus tried so hard to disguise as being as utterly “hip” as Twilight, that they failed miserably. And I’m both surprised and disappointed that they didn’t hire a Rick James impersonator to sing a promotional song for the film (“She’s a Cirque Du Freak, Cirque Du Freak, she’s Cirque Du Freaky!”) as it would have probably made the film a bigger hit at the box office (the movie didn’t fare well, needless to say).

It’s sad to think that, had it not been for Meyer and her girly glistening bloodslurpers, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant would have probably never seen the greenlight of day — unless someone like Tim Burton took an interest in it, of course. And speaking of Burton, the opening credits of Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant appear to have been lifted directly from one of his storyboards — with a great deal of Spider-Man thrown in to further capture the “teen” vote — while the opening credits’ theme music has a distinctly Danny Elfman quality about it.

Were they patronizing, plagiarizing, or paying homage? You decide. But, before you make your decision, please note that Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant was co-produced, co-written (screenplay), and directed by Paul Weitz, one of the boys responsible for the American Pie series.

But enough of my nitpicking: let’s discuss the film itself, shall we? In a way, it’s a pity that Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant had to wait for the Twilight craze to be made, because there is evidence here of something we don’t see every day in a major Hollywood production: originality (gasp) and fun (double gasp!). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I actually liked this movie — which is something I never thought I would say about any film with John C. Reilly. Surprisingly, even the usually-annoying Reilly manages to make it through the film without having to rely entirely on dumb comedy to do so.

The story follows the life, death, and subsequent undead afterlife of one Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), a Straight-A high school student with a fondness for spiders. His best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a passion for vampires and a tendency to do “bad boy” things. When the Cirque Du Freak comes to town, the boys eagerly attend the carnival of living human horrors — and their relationships goes to Hell in a handbasket from there on in. Firstly, the psychic bearded lady (Selma Hayek) foresees a terrible fate in store for Darren. Secondly, Steve recognizes one of the show’s performers, Larten Crepsley, (John C. Reilly) as a vampire.

Following the show, Darren sneaks into Crepsley’s dressing room to play with his spider (er, it’s not as bad as that sounds — look, just don’t ask, OK?), only to hide in the closet (again, don’t ask) when Crepsley and his old pal Gavner (Willem Dafoe, made up to look like Vincent Price — nice touch) enter. Soon, Steve comes-a-bargin’ in, demanding Crepsley make him a vampire — because it’s all he ever wanted (hey, we all have our fantasies: I always wanted to have Superman’s powers, personally). Stealing the arachnid from Crepsley’s room, Darren hightails it out of the theater, only to be picked up by the villains of the story: the mysterious Mr. Tiny and his henchman Murlaugh (played by Michael Cerveris and Ray Stevenson, respectively — both of whom overact as badly as the villains in Twilight).

The next day, the poisonous spider bites Steve, placing him into a deadly coma. Darren begs Crepsley for an antidote — and the vampire agrees, so long as Darren in turn consents to sharing his blood with nosferatu and becoming The Vampire’s Assistant. Following his introduction to half-vampirism, Darren soon becomes another one of the freaks, living with the cirque’s clan and scooping up the mess that the wolf-man leaves behind. Meanwhile, Mr. Tiny has recruited the dark-in-nature Steve, whom he is convinced will one day lead the evil vampires of the world in an epic battle that will decide the fate of the entire world.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on here, it’s because there is. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant combines the first three Shan novels (Cirque Du Freak, The Vampire’s Assistant, and Tunnels Of Blood) for its screenplay. But I imagine only the devout followers of the novels will find the abridgment discontenting. Admittedly, the writing is a bit corny (show me a modern horror/comedy aimed at teens that isn’t corny and I’ll show the rest of the world that you’re a liar) — and, as I‘ve said, I have not read the original books, so I can’t say if they were written with the same kind of humor or if the humor just didn’t translate well from its British author to an American film. Nevertheless, the movie seems to hold its own well enough for its 119-minute runtime (despite the open ending — rumors of sequels have diminished since the box office receipts poured in, so don‘t count on a follow-up film), and offers enough to hold the interest of the PG-13+ crowd it’s aimed at as well as their parental figures.

Of course, I could be wrong about the whole thing. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant could just be another crappy movie, and I just happened to view it while I in a particularly happy mood (unlikely, but probable). But, hey, if that’s the case, the movie in question didn’t ruin said happy mood! So go ahead, folks: place it in your rental queue — I assure you it won’t sting any more than your usual John C. Reilly vehicle, or bite any harder than your average teeny vampire flick.

OK, so while Universal may have been keen to rush a movie into theaters just to cash in on something else (hey, that’s show business, kids!), their Blu-ray release of Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant suggests that they actually took their time. The disc boasts a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer, which does not disappoint in terms of quality. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 ratio, with vibrant colors (check out the purples, particularly), solid black levels, and a contrast that makes the film’s often-cartoonish appearance look stunning. Accompanying the High Def transfer is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless mix that also impresses. There are a lot of odds and ends in terms of the movie’s soundtrack (whether it be effects, music, or dialogue), and Universal’s mix delivers admirably. The 50GB disc also contains French and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks, as well as a DVS 2.0 offering for the visually impaired. Subtitles are offered up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

Special features for Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant are rather sparse. We begin with a Picture-In-Picture feature (part of Universal’s “U-Control Experience”), wherein you can view some behind-the-scenes featurettes (some of which are available in the Special Features menu) while watching the movie itself. Three featurettes on the making-of the film are included as part of “Guide To Becoming A Vampire.” Another featurette (“Tour Du Freak”) is basically more of the same. Lastly, there are nearly a half-hour’s worth of deleted scenes. Sadly, the excised footage is shown in Standard Definition here (boo). The disc is also BD-Live enabled, and contains a number of trailers as well.

OK, so sure, Cirque Du Freak is not as critically acclaimed as, say, the Harry Potter franchise (a series that is undoubtedly the true source of blame when it comes to Hollywood’s recent fascination with epically-budgeted youth fiction-to-film adaptations). But, on the indefinitely bright side, Edward and Bella are nowhere to be seen in this movie. Yay!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
  • dave

    listen dude, i understand your a critic, but you obviously blow at your job. first you say “I had never heard of Darren Shan’s series books”, so obviously you hadn’t read the books and have NO FUCKING CLUE how vampires were portrayed in this series of books (which, may i add, was one of the best series i have ever read). so with that in mind you then go on [personal attack deleted] saying “effectively managed to ruin the how vampires were portrayed in both literature and motion pictures”. Please, answer me this, if you never read the books and don’t know how the vamps were portrayed in them, then why on earth would you think that this director ruined how they were portrayed? I am confused by that, because the director made the vampires EXACTLY how the book made them out to be. So please, next time you write a (obviously biased) review, please do some research before hand.

  • http://insomniacentertainment.com Luigi Bastardo

    Hi Dave, I actually said that the writer and filmmakers of TWILIGHT “effectively managed to ruin the how vampires were portrayed in both literature and motion pictures.” I would suggest you go back and take another look at that opening paragraph. I also went on to say that I enjoyed the movie — something you may have noticed had you actually bothered to read the entire article.

  • doug m

    Bela’s portrayal remains intact on my DVD so your comment is inaccurate hyperbole

  • http://insomniacentertainment.com Luigi Bastardo

    Thank you for keeping up the (dark) faith, Doug M! More people need to (re-)visit the classics.

  • http://www.filmcalamity.com/ Jonathan Sullivan

    I always fear one day that I will review a movie adapted from a book series and then a hardcore fan will rip me to shreads about it for no reason whatsoever. I’m glad I got to see that first hand to get prepared.

    As for the Vampire’s Assistant…it had cool ideas, but it felt like it was just rushing through everything and setting up the whole series, as opposed to just telling the story. Reilly was good, but before he took off on this comedy thing of his, he turned in great performances all the time (Boogie Nights is the first example that comes to mind). If it hadn’t been rushed, or they didn’t combine so much mythology that they couldn’t concentrate, it could have been cool. At the very least, a healthy (and funny for the right reasons) alternative to Twilight.

  • http://insomniacentertainment.com Luigi Bastardo

    Yes, one must be cautious when dealing with an adaptation like this — especially when there are people out there that a) aren’t entirely proficient at reading, and b) are proficient enough to use the Internet.

    Back to the movie. Yes, it has that rushed feeling. I don’t know if it would have made it as a series even if it hadn’t been rushed and condensed the way it is, but it still out-glistened that other thing.

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