A Vampire Flick that Doesn’t Suck (PG-13)
Ambitious adaptation is an adventure. For a movie about vampires, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant has very little actual blood – but that doesn’t mean the film’s PG-13 rating isn’t earned through lots of doom, gloom and a healthy amount of sarcastically sardonic (and sometimes vulgar) wit. But if your family is one that strays a little from the beaten path, “The Vampire’s Assistant” may be right up your bizarre alley.
Based on the books by Darren Shan, the film focuses on the contents of the first trilogy of books, called Vampire Blood. In those, main character Darren (yes, he’s named after the author) accidentally falls into the world of vampires when a traveling freak show rolls through his town; he ends up as a vampire’s assistant, goes to live with the freaks and eventually must confront his family after having lied to them about being dead. And though those books share more than 600 pages altogether, they come together nicely in the film’s 108 minutes.
Things start off with Darren (Chris Massoglia, The Hole), who is your basic run-of-the-mill teenager: In a voiceover monologue, he describes how “spending this much time in a coffin was never part of my plan.” Instead, he was somewhat popular, had a solid crew of friends and was the kind of kid that got good grades because his “allowance was tied to it.” The only blemish in his unremarkable teen career is his best-friendship with bad kid Steve (Josh Hutcherson, Journey to the Center of the Earth) who coaxes Darren into skipping class, climbing to their school’s roof and throwing rocks at lightbulbs.
Soon enough, Darren is readily caught by his parents, who scream at him about how needs to follow “the path to a happy, productive life – college, job, family.” But he’s locked up just in time for the traveling freak show that rolls into town: As soon as a flier for the mysterious Cirque du Freak flutters out from the window of a purple limousine (with the vanity planes “DES-TINY,” a somewhat obvious clue to how the plot will progress), Darren and Steve have already made plans to sneak out. Later that night, they meet up in an abandoned part of town, where they fib their way into the show and end up being amazed by the variety of characters they find there.
From the vicious, fly-swarmed, genitalia-scratching Wolfman (we didn’t know there was a guy under there, but sure enough, it’s special effects master Tom Ruddruff Jr.) to the body part-regenerating Corma Limbs (the always cheekily charming Jane Krakowski, “30 Rock”) and the torso-less Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones, Rules of Engagement), they’re all introduced by Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe, channeling his Ras al Ghul performance from Batman Begins). But while Darren and Steve giggle at the absurdities before their eyes, they get serious when bearded lady Madame Truska (Selma Hayek) foresees something bad in Darren’s future and when Steve insists that Larten Crepsley (a surprisingly hilarious John C. Reilly) isn’t just a regular member of the show, but actually a 200-year-old vampire that Steve has seen extensively in his favorite vampire books.
Little dash of character development: Steve’s life-goal is to be a vampire; Darren has an unexplainable passion for spiders. As a result, when Darren steals Crepsley’s spider Madam Octa, who eventually bites Steve and plunges him into a deadly coma, Darren must unwillingly live his friend’s dream by becoming Crepsley’s assistant. As a half-vampire, Darren gets pulled into a war between the non-killing vampires, led by Crepsley and friend Gavner (an enjoyably campy Willem Dafoe) and the Vampaneze, led by the pointy-toothed Murlaugh.Oh, and the whole thing is being orchestrated by the grotesquely obese, ironically named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris from “Fringe” overdoes it a bit, but he gets the creepy point across), who eventually turns Steve against Darren in their conflict over the point of humanity.
Talk about your teen angst, no?
But for teens and older tweens who can handle the supernatural elements of the film, it sends a solid message about how normalcy is relative (though the film lacks subtlety in its final third, it does a good job getting there) and how the term “freak” is all in the eye of the beholder. While Darren begins the film distancing himself from nerds at school, he eventually befriends a snake boy and becomes romantically involved with a girl with a monkey’s tail, both elements of character development that seem more natural than his friendship with Steve, which is somewhat rushed through.
Thankfully, however, Massoglia’s wide-eyed wonder at the world of the freaks is definitely believable (wouldn’t you be weirded out by a guy with two stomachs who can swallow metal and then bring it back up in sculpture form?), and he has solid chemistry with Reilly, whose jaded-yet-hopeful view of the world and deadpan delivery of vampiric truths (vampires turning into bats = “bull—-”) keep the film moving at a snappy pace.
And though the film has some mild cursing (less than 10 instances, no f-bombs) and lots of action scenes, there’s nothing too brutal or bloody. There’s a fast-paced altercation in a graveyard and an extended scene in a theater, but the violence is somewhat cartoon-y – there are lots of fast cuts and flying scenery and props, but no graphic close-ups or gory moments. Instead, it’s some of the action-less scenes that are more disturbing, such as when Corma Limbs snaps off her finger and kisses Mr. Ribs with it, “Lady and the Tramp”-style, or when Steve shows up at his hated teacher’s home to show him who’s boss. Though most of the scene is left up to your imagination, the suggestion is more troubling than if we’d seen its actual execution.
Overall, though, both new and original fans of the Shan’s book series should be able to get behind The Vampire’s Assistant. Though the adaptation doesn’t perfectly line up with Shan’s original source material – really, though, which movie based on a book does? – it condenses the story in a streamlined way that hooks viewers, keeps them engaged and looking forward to a sequel. There may already be a glut of vampire-related entertainment options in Hollywood right now, but we can support this Cullen-less one.
The preview before this film was for “Despicable Me,” a 3-D animated film coming out next year.
by Roxana Hadadi
Roxana Hadadi is a contributing writer to The Washington Post Express and to BLURT Magazine.