Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Web critic James Berardinelli (of www.reelviews.net) put it best when defining a “guilty-pleasure”—“Guilty pleasure (n): a film that a critic shamefacedly admits to liking even though the prevailing opinion, as put forth by serious members of the profession, is that the movie is a piece of crap.” (from his “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” review)

I was 17 years old when “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” was released in cinemas in the fall of 2009. I saw it and, despite many film critics’ opinions of it, found myself very much enjoying it. Even my friends at school were thinking I was crazy for recommending it, although to be fair, some of them were disappointed mainly because they had read the book series this film is (loosely) based on. I hadn’t read the books until a few months later, when I started to read the first four (out of I forgot how many). As a film itself, my opinion still didn’t change. I still thought it was quite entertaining, despite what everyone else said. So…yes, I would call “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” a “guilty-pleasure.”

But for the record, I wouldn’t call this film “flawless.” There are a few things wrong about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” that I notice with each viewing—flaws that should tick me off to my boiling point and make me create a scathing review of it instead of a semi-positive one. But for some reason, those never seemed to deliver that effect on me. I was never sure why. Maybe I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story involving the supernatural and this is just a pushover for me. Maybe the good parts about the film overthrow the bad in the end. Maybe I see something here that hardly anyone else who saw the movie did.

OK, enough of that. To get into the review…actually, where do I even start?

Well, first I’ll start with the biggest noticeable flaw in the movie. It’s clearly intended to be the first installment of a franchise, meaning there are so many loose ends, so many elements built up to nothing—just a cliffhanger ending with very little resolution. It’s as if all the filmmakers had in mind for this movie was to set up a possible “Cirque du Freak” franchise. And what makes it worse is that this movie did poorly at the box-office, meaning—guess what—there was no chance of a sequel. I guess we were supposed to read the books to fill in the rest of the story, if we cared enough. But there’s one major problem with that—the first half of the movie is based somewhat upon the first two books, while the second half of the movie was entirely made up on the spot. So those who do read the books to find out what happens after the all-too-ambiguous ending are going to be lost and confused. So mainly what it comes down to is that this movie cannot stand alone.

This sort of confidence that a film based on a popular book can do well worked for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and even “Twilight.” (And as I can tell, it’s also working for “Percy Jackson.”) But what about “Eragon?” What about “The Golden Compass?” And now this. Give Fox’s lackluster “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” credit for keeping its story somewhat cohesive. And their “City of Ember,” which I find quite underrated, actually (and for the record, I hold no guilt in liking that one). (How odd is it that I’m defending 20th Century Fox, despite their tendency not to adapt from their source material all that well.)

Well, this “positive” review is not starting out well, is it?

The story involves a high-school teen named Darren Shan (sharing the same name of the author of the original book series). Darren is more or less a “perfect kid.” Darren (Chris Massoglia) listens to his parents, he gets good grades, and he’s popular in school. He does, however, have a weak link in his otherwise-perfect life—a bully-for-a-best-friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson) who constantly gets Darren into trouble. (Oh, and Darren also has a bizarre fascination with spiders, which is patently explained early on, just as how Steve is obsessed with vampires.) Darren and Steve come across a flyer for a freak show, known as Cirque du Freak, appearing in their hometown. Steve convinces Darren to sneak out of the house at night to check it out.

The freak show is a marvel of talents and grotesque visuals—there’s an overweight man with “two bellies” that crafts a tricycle out of spare parts he swallows himself; a teenage boy with scaly skin and a large snake; a woman who can grow limbs back after they’ve been chopped or bitten off (wait, wha…?); and a bearded lady, among others. Steve recognizes one of the talents—a spider wrangler named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly)—as a vampire (funny how no one seemed to notice that, apparently), and goes backstage to ask to become one himself. But what he didn’t know was that Darren was hiding in Crepsley’s dressing room and stolen his spider (a rare breed that brings certain death with one bite). Darren gets away, but the spider winds up biting Steve (who doesn’t become a vampire, because he has “bad blood”). So he goes back to Crepsley to beg him to help save him. Crepsley accepts, but on one condition: that Darren becomes a half-vampire and work as his assistant while traveling with the Cirque.

As if that setup wasn’t full enough, there’s also a mysterious large man known as Mr. Tiny (played by Michael Cerveris) who apparently has great powers and wants to see a war between good Vampires (such as Crepsley) and evil Vampaneze (vampires who kill whom they need their blood from). He has his sights set on Darren and Steve, because apparently, there’s some sort of prophecy that states that two boys on opposing teams will start the war. So while Darren becomes a vampire, he goes to Steve in order to convince him to turn into a Vampaneze (anybody else think that name sounds silly?). To Tiny’s aid is a vicious Vampaneze known as Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson), who sharpens his fangs with a small cutting tool (OK, that’s kind of cool).

And believe it or not—that’s just the first half of the movie I just described. I haven’t even mentioned Darren faking his own death in order to join the Cirque; the Vampaneze attacking Crepsley and Darren because they know Darren will ultimately do something for them; Darren joining the Cirque and getting to know them; Steve becoming a Vampaneze; and many more. I have to admit this movie is overstuffed. There’s too much going on here, and unfortunately, due to the lack of resolution for the most part, that doesn’t make it fully satisfying, admittedly.

There are also changes in the vampire legend here. Half-vampires are able to walk in the daylight (useful as a vampire’s assistant) and all vampires are able to “flit” (run with super-fast speed with a colorful trail of smoke following them). Also, these vampires don’t kill whoever they feed on, because after all, Crepsley must be the guy to root for and Murlaugh must be the one for us to root against.

I like the character of Larten Crepsley; he’s quite interesting in how he is a man who seems to have been cursed with this identity from the start and sometimes has difficulty coping with it. Therefore, while sometimes he uses the Cirque as a way of pleasure through entertainment, he also has his surly moments as well. He has a romance with the Bearded Lady (Salma Hayek) and his scenes with her allow him to reveal some of what he’s going through—if he gets too attached to her, even though he’ll live much longer than her, what does that leave him with? I thought John C. Reilly did a credible job at playing the role, and also provides some of the movie’s laughs and funniest lines of dialogue.

But “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is more of Darren’s story, as he changes from “Mr. Perfect” to “Vampire’s Assistant.” This is more of a superhero origin tale than a “Dracula” story. While many critics have found Darren to be bland and all too generic, and found Chris Massoglia’s acting to be mediocre, I really didn’t have much of a problem with him. I didn’t mind Massoglia’s acting (though, he is noticeably better in Joe Dante’s “The Hole”) and didn’t think it was the purpose for Darren to be the most interesting person in the movie. Massoglia plays him as an average teenager that goes through all of this madness (or “freakiness”), and while he’s not exactly memorable, he is likeable. And I liked watching him interact with the members of the Cirque, including a girl with a Monkey Tail with whom he shares a little romance with. He also befriends the aforementioned “boy with scaly skin” named Evra (Patrick Fugit). And I’m just going to come out and say it—I hate this character. From the moment he stepped on-screen in the freak show sequence, and complained about how no one will let him play music, I knew I wouldn’t like him. People have a problem with Darren, but this kid is just whiny and obnoxious throughout.

Mr. Tiny is probably the most interesting character in the movie, and Michael Cerveris is completely game at playing him. He says he’s not the villain, but simply wants to be a bystander to a coming apocalypse. But look at him—he reads the Book of Souls, feels joy when he realizes what could happen, manipulates young men into falling into this new prophecy, and the whole idea of wanting destruction says it enough; he’s a villain. And what is he and where is he from? We’re not sure. We know about many things he can do (such as reanimate corpses by crushing them down to half-size—hello, “Phantasm”), but what is the extent of his abilities? That, this guy is downright creepy. He looks like a man preparing to go to the opera; you wouldn’t suspect anything by looking at him. But talk to the man and you know something is wrong. This is an intriguing villain.

Murlaugh is intimidating at first, but becomes just sillier and sillier as the movie continues (though it is fun watching Ray Stevenson overact), while Steve is pretty boring. He becomes a villain late in the proceedings, now a Vampaneze, and his portrayal reminded me of Harry Osborn’s mediocre characterization in “Spider-Man 3.”

Who else is in this movie? Let’s see—there’s Willem Dafoe in what can be described as a cameo in the role of Gavner Purl, a friend of Crepsley’s; Ken Watanbe as Mr. Tall, a seven-foot caretaker for the Cirque; Frankie Faison as the aforementioned “two-bellied” one; and many others. They’re not on screen for very long, but they make the most of their time.

Good Lord, I’m hardly done describing certain things about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” and this review is already so long. I didn’t even mention the CGI dwarves that bite people at freak-show admission stands…apparently, not many people were bothered by that, as Darren and Steve walk into an auditorium full of people. And what about the climactic confrontation between Crepsley and Murlaugh and between Darren and Steve (one of which has a winning finish)? And the message that was seemed put in at the last minute—“It’s not about what you are; it’s about who you are.” Oh, and what about the extras in Darren and Steve’s high school, who are not the greatest actors as they don’t seem natural in the slightest? Man, this movie is so full!

You know…I realize while writing this unbelievably long review (probably the longest I’ve written) that this movie is not as good as I remember it. It was somewhat obvious when I watched it again before this review. And yet, I still feel somewhat positive towards it. Does that technically mean I should give this a mixed (2.5 rating) review?

What do I like about the movie? Well, there are some appealing characters in the mix—while most of them are barely developed, what we do see of them is entertaining enough. The world they’re in is appealing as well, and the visuals are impressive enough—the production design and the costumes really pop. The (intentional) comedy works well, for the most part (particularly with the freaks). There’s a nice cast that keeps things interesting. I liked seeing Darren learn to fit into the Cirque, this society of freaks, and how he becomes a member. And…I don’t know, I sort of bought into the spirit of things with this movie.

So, like I said, I do kind of like “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” despite its many flaws. You can call it a guilty-pleasure, as I already have. I understand its flaws, don’t get me wrong. It’s somewhat clumsy, especially in how it doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I did find something to enjoy about this movie, and I’m going to stand strong in defending it whenever it’s brought up in a derogatory manner.

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