When it comes to famous directing siblings, perhaps the first names that spring to mind are either the kings of gross, The Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Stuck on You, Fever Pitch) or the Academy Award-winning team of Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading).
There's a double vampire tag team of films this season: the upcoming New Moon, which is the next installment of the Twilight franchise, directed by Chris Weitz, and the subject of this review, which is directed by Paul Weitz. We’ll see which brother reigns supreme. I don’t need to tell you which film is the more highly anticipated of the two, but between Paul and Chris Weitz, my money is on Paul as to who delivers the goods. Early word of mouth does not sound promising for New Moon but Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant will be far and away the better of the films.
Between the two directors, Paul has a far better resume. To be fair, however, most of their films have been directed together. From their breakout cash cow American Pie through the Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth and the fabulous Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy, I’d say they’ve done fairly well working together.
After they decided to tackle their own projects is where their choices started to lag in quality. While Chris cracked out another novel adaptation with The Golden Compass, Paul gave us the hilarious In Good Company but also the Mandy Moore-starring American Dreamz. Luckily with the latter he was working again with Hugh Grant whom he first teamed up with for About a Boy.
Paul has also managed to work with two great co-writers when not working directly with brother Chris. While the lackluster Down to Earth was written by Chris Rock and his friends, Weitz has been able to work with the great Peter Hedges on About a Boy and has now teamed up with Brian Helgeland for Cirque du Freak.
Thankfully, Helgeland is working in his element here seeing how he has written both great and pretty dismal offerings himself — The Taking of Pelham 123, Man on Fire, Mystic River, Blood Work, A Knight’s Tale, Payback, The Postman, Conspiracy Theory, L.A. Confidential, Assassins — and has also ventured into the horror genre before with some offerings in TV (Friday the 13th and Tales From the Crypt) and on the big screen (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and Robert Englund’s directorial debut 976-EVIL).
In Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant we meet teenager Darren Shan, played by Chris Massoglia (Darren Shan also happens to be the name of the author of the book series). He’s popular enough and gets good grades in school. His parents love him dearly for making the most out of academics but are none too fond of his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson).
When Darren gets in trouble after shattering lights with rocks on the roof of the school, his parents force him to not be friends with Steve anymore. While they discuss being “secret” best friends in front of the school, a car passes by fluttering out a flier for Cirque du Freak. An underground freak show has come to town and the boys are far too curious to not check it out.
After a biting entrance they meet Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe) who instructs them to say they’re 21 years old before being allowed to take their seats. Here they see a few shows consisting of Cirque du Freak's literal freaks.
The final show belongs to Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) performing with his pet spider Octa. During Crepsley's act Steve recognizes him as a vampire out of a book he's read. After Crepsley’s part of the program is abruptly shut down by local authorities the boys separate in order not to be seen.
While hiding out in Crepsley’s closet after stealing Octa from Crepsley, Darren overhears Crepsley talking with fellow vampire Gavner Purl (Willem Dafoe) about a feud between normal vamps and what are called “vampaneze.” These "vampaneze" insist on fully draining and killing their victims where the rest only drink enough to sustain their needs and keep from getting hunted down by lynch mobs. Darren also overhears Steve confess that he hates his life and wants to be made a vampire.
Crepsley denies Steve his desire, which infuriates him and Darren escapes with Octa in tow. The next day at school Octa escapes from Darren’s backpack and bites Steve on the cheek. Darren seeks out Crepsley for an antidote which is only to be granted after Darren agrees to allow Crepsley to turn him into a half-vampire. This means he can run errands for Crepsley during the day and won’t have to rely solely on blood for survival.
Steve finds solace in the likes of Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) who grants him his vampiric wish and is assigned a mentor, Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). Unbeknownst to Steve, Mr. Tiny actually wants to concoct a war between vampires and the "vampaneze" to end the truce which he feels has gone on far too long. Mr. Tiny uses Steve to find Darren to fight and possibly kill each other to bring the truce to an end.
As you can see there is a lot of exposition. That it all flows so well is quite a surprise with such a truncated running time. You can tell that there are huge chunks missing with jarring transitional scenes and characters that are seen rather briefly but obviously originally had much more screen time. At least the film doesn’t suffer from the same thing the Harry Potter series and Twilight do, which is the director’s inability to not film the book page for page.
Last week, Where the Wild Things Are managed to pull off quite the stunt by making me literally feel like a kid again while this week I get one that makes me remember what it was like to watch a film as a young kid. The sense of ooh and ahh is quite high here and Universal is releasing it at exactly the right time with Halloween only a week away. Kudos to Paul Weitz for managing to shorten his own work but still find the time to offer some fun characterization.
Josh Hutcherson may be the better known actor but compared to Chris Massoglia in the lead, Hutcherson still has quite a way to go in the acting department. The supporting cast is great as the cast of “freaks” they all are but the film’s greatest strength comes from the always fantastic John C. Reilly. Whether he’s Mr. Cellophane in Chicago or playing sidekick to Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers, the man is always a delight with his ever fuzzy head of hair and drop dead-pan delivery.
A slight point of interest I noticed was how refreshing it was to watch a film aimed at the “tween” demographic which features an actual score. Only a few choice songs were used throughout the film and seemed to be used more for their sense of tone in the scene than simply to plaster another boy band or emo pop group on the back of the soundtrack.
The opening credit sequence is very fun and cleverly done while managing to set up the overall tone of sinister and camp. It also made the film seem like a mix of Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Monster Squad. And any director who can bring more attention to one of my favorite bands, The Fratellis, the better in my book.
The so-called message of the film comes off pretty forced as almost an afterthought and it was definitely not needed. However, if you’re looking for something slightly spooky this season thankfully they have managed to squeeze in an appropriate edge and the film definitely earns its PG-13 rating. This one is even more so not for the youngsters than most thought last week’s children’s film was. If the film feels even slightly choppy that may be because it was, but at least what was left in the final cut flows evenly enough, the loose ends are tied up and the sequel is lead into. The best news is that at least these vampires follow centuries of mythology and thankfully no one sparkles.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures