Amid Vampires, Boy Meets Girl, Complete With Monkey’s Tail
Darren (Chris Massoglia) has a life that’s hectic in the usual teenage ways. He’s a good student with a bad-boy best friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson) and loving if somewhat intrusive parents. Darren’s afterlife, however, is a whole different story.
After a mysterious circus comes to town, Darren and Steve find themselves pulled into a long-running conflict between rival factions of the undead: the eccentric but basically decent Vampires and the diabolical Vampaneze. They enter a world whose inhabitants range from odd to sinister and beyond, a realm fraught with complications that will take many more movies to resolve.
This is the premise, and the hope, of “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” adapted by Paul Weitz (who directed the film and wrote the script with Brian Helgeland) from the first volumes in a popular series of young-adult, comic-gothic novels by Darren Shan. This frenetic, bumpy movie enters a crowded marketplace of book-based, youth-oriented fantasy entertainment and perhaps inevitably calls to mind some of its competitors, from the unstoppable (and soon to be concluded) Harry Potter series to, most obviously, the “Twilight”franchise.
Coincidentally enough, Mr. Weitz’s brother and frequent collaborator, Chris, has taken over that juggernaut of swooning adolescent vampire love, the second installment of which, “New Moon,” opens next month. Both “Twilight” and “Cirque du Freak” plunge a normal American high school student into a maelstrom of supernatural warfare, but “The Vampire’s Assistant” favors campy, semi-comic grotesquerie over hothouse romanticism. Its wandering narrative and quizzical blend of the outré and the everyday sometimes feel like David Lynch for young adults.
There are bright colors, garish costumes and stagy special effects, in keeping with both the circus setting and with Mr. Weitz’s not quite successful attempt to meld disparate moods and tones. (Speaking of tones, I should disclose here that the composer of the film’s score, Stephen Trask, is a friend of mine.) The movie starts out as a voice-over-driven satire of youth in the suburbs, with shades of John Hughes and “Heathers,” and then jumps from horror to melodrama to a kind of carnival backstage comedy.
At the circus, whose connection to the whole Vampire-versus-Vampaneze imbroglio is never entirely clear, Darren finds a squad of human oddities, including a bearded lady (Salma Hayek), a fellow with two stomachs (Frankie Faison), an indie-rock snake boy (Patrick Fugit) and a potential sweetheart with the tail of a monkey (Jessica Carlson). The show is presided over by an enigmatic fellow named Larten Crepsley, played by John C. Reilly with an exotic accent and a florid manner that express, above all, his joy at being liberated from regular-guy typecasting.
One of Crepsley’s fellow Vampires, Gavner Purl, is played by Willem Dafoe, whose hollow cheeks and funereal voice (to say nothing of his portrayal of the old-school freak Max Schreck in E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire”) give him instant credibility. Also on hand is Michael Cerveris, the brilliant stage actor (“Tommy,” the recent Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd”), who plays Mr. Tiny, a porcine provocateur who entices Steve over to the Vampaneze in his quest to stir up trouble in the underworld.
The trouble with “The Vampire’s Assistant” is that it is almost all prologue and exposition. It lays out, at some length and yet only in part, an intricately crosshatched set of dramatic problems. Will Steve and Darren become mortal — or undead — enemies? Why do the Vampires and the Vampaneze hate each other so much? Ideally, the opener of a many-sequeled series should create an almost unbearable need to know the answers to such questions, so that fans count the months to the next installment.
Instead, this movie incites curiosity tinged with confusion and irritation. It bristles with interesting ideas — about friendship and freakishness, honesty and anger — and intriguing characters, all of which may blossom in later episodes. But the pop-culture landscape is littered with scuttled or suspended fantasy series, including “The Chronicles of Narnia,”“The Golden Compass” and those Lemony Snicket novels. “Cirque du Freak” seems to be at some risk of joining them, since “The Vampire’s Assistant” tests its viewers’ patience even as it strives to build their loyalty.
“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some grisly and scary moments.
CIRQUE DU FREAK
The Vampire’s Assistant
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Paul Weitz; written by Mr. Weitz and Brian Helgeland, based on the “Cirque du Freak” series of books by Darren Shan; director of photography, James Muro; edited by Leslie Jones; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, William Arnold; special effects and creature effects by Alex Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Mr. Weitz, Ewan Leslie and Andrew Miano; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.
WITH: John C. Reilly (Crepsley), Ken Watanabe (Mr. Tall), Josh Hutcherson (Steve), Chris Massoglia (Darren), Jessica Carlson (Rebecca), Ray Stevenson (Murlaugh), Patrick Fugit (Evra the Snake Boy), Willem Dafoe (Gavner Purl), Salma Hayek (Madame Truska), Orlando Jones (Alexander Ribs), Frankie Faison (Rhamus Twobellies) and Michael Cerveris (Mr. Tiny).