Like the ominous fingernail moon early on in Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, the bloodsucker trend is again in a waxing phase thanks to the mass-cult followings of the Twilight saga and HBO's True Blood. However, the only authentic vampires in this first (and, I can all but guarantee, last) installment of the Cirque du Freak franchise are the producers and studio executives behind such a grossly miscalculated project.
Drawn from the first pulpy trilogy of 12 young-adult books by U.K. author Darren Shan (titled "The Saga of Darren Shan" and beloved by J.K. Rowling herself, who offered a glowing endorsement), Cirque du Freak has flashy F/X creatures of the night and sideshow mutants, coming-of-age teen angst and romance, wish-fulfillment fantasies, surrogate families of outsiders, mysterious backstories, and a brewing war between beasties. On paper, it's a perfect box-office and merchandising formula — Twilight meets X-Men meets Harry Potter — but the onscreen result is not the sum of its parts.
Cirque du Freak opens in sunny, small-town suburbia, where blandly popular high-schooler Darren (played by bland newcomer Chris Massoglia) earns straight A's to please his parents and hangs out with his ne'er-do-well buddy, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). But something wacky this way comes: The titular freak show is in town for one night only, playing right into Darren and Steve's respective obsessions with spiders and vampires. The two sneak out at night to see the performance, and are introduced to a scaly-skinned snake boy (Patrick Fugit), a bearded lady and clairvoyant (Salma Hayek), a woman who regenerates her severed limbs (Jane Krakowski), a ravenous wolfman, and more, all led by sardonic spider-tamer Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a fiery-mopped eccentric who Steve recognizes from one of his occult books to be a 220-year-old vampire.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Directed by Paul Weitz. Written by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland. Based on the books by Darren Shan. Starring Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, and John C. Reilly. Rated PG-13.
Shan's novels are unsmilingly dark, and so apparently was L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland's first draft of Cirque before director Paul Weitz (American Pie), also credited as a co-writer, came onboard and decided to make the adaptation more comedic. Blowing through three books' worth of material, Weitz's "highlight" reel has Steve threatening Larten after his request to be transformed into a neck-biter is denied; a spider bite sending Steve into a coma; Darren becoming a half-vampire (?) and Larten's assistant in exchange for an antidote to Steve's spider bite; Darren refusing to drink blood to maintain some humanity; Darren's love interest — a cute girl too insecure to show her monkey tail — teaching him that "being human is not about what you are, but who you are"; Darren learning that vampires never kill their prey (only the vampaneze do that!); Darren battling the now-evil Steve who is also now-jealous because Darren got to become a vampire (or, half), and he didn't. Also, Willem Dafoe shows up looking like Vincent Price resurrected.
Some of you are thinking: That sounds rad! And all of the above might have worked if this was either straight dark comedy or actually dark. But Cirque suffers from the same tonal schizophrenia of that other recent goth-chic wanna-be, Jennifer's Body: Is it meant to be scary or funny? Oops, it's neither. And even with that plot pileup, it's actually pretty lifeless. Apparently, Weitz did not learn anything from his brother, Chris, who screwed up his own potential blockbuster series helming/ruining The Golden Compass. As if a family rite of passage, both insipid films were congested with exposition, nonsensically plotted, and soulless — which isn't meant to reference the undead, but then again, Chris Weitz did direct the upcoming The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
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All that seems left to do with vampire tales is to subvert the myth, mash it up with other genres, or reconfigure as satire. Or has that all been done in the past year? Whatever tone Cirque du Freak is ultimately aiming for, it's an unengaging, confusingly edited, half-assed attempt to sell popcorn, with barely a finale before the ready-for-more cliffhanger. And if you can't pull a laugh out of John C. Reilly, your movie must really — like his character — not have a pulse.