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).