Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Weitz

Cast: Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Ken Watanabe, Orlando Jones, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 10/23/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The appeal of vampires is not lost on Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, the first film installment (and let's hope there are more) of author Darren Shan's young adult book series, but it does itself well not to romanticize it. No, this is not an overblown melodrama of high school angst and forbidden love, all played out with deadly significance (Ahem…). This first film (based on Shan's first three books) is a darkly funny and fun macabre fantasy that constantly winks at itself and expectations.

The Vampire's Assistant is also smart in the way it keeps its tongue in cheek by not bringing attention to the satirical elements but making them a firm part of the world it creates.

The world of the film is admittedly familiar and based within common mythology, but that world seems more unique because of the story's tone. We've seen a carnival of freaks before, but here, there's a snake boy who just wants to write and play music. There's a wolfman, who bites off the arm of a woman in the crowd, only to have it grow right back—bone, muscle, circulatory system, and skin appearing out of thin air. There are strange, viscous little creatures that are the resurrected dead, punished to a life of servitude.

These are just the day players within The Vampire's Assistant's lore, and the film takes its mythology as its own reality and runs with it. There's something satisfying to the feeling we get from Shan's world that not everyone will play a fundamental role in the plot but instead act merely as window-dressing. It's a rewarding sense of observing a vision.

That's not to say there isn't the usual archetypal plot to a fantasy adventure at play (or at least as much as is possible apart from the necessary exposition of an opening part). Our hero is Darren (Chris Massoglia), a high school kid who's pretty popular, gets good grades, and has some cool friends, including his rebellious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who constantly calls Darren "Mr. Perfect."

The two go to the local stop of the Cirque du Freak, and Steve recognizes the circus' main magician Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) as a vampire from one of his many books on the subject.

Steve desperately wants to become a vampire (his home life is terrible—absent father, alcoholic mom), but it's Darren that Crepsley later eyes to become his assistant, in part to make up for stealing Crepsley's prized spider and in another to save Steve from said spider's venom.

Crepsley, who was once a great vampire warrior and now is perfectly content in the life of a vaudevillian, teaches Darren the ropes. Reilly clearly has a blast with the role, and his scolding lessons challenge the perception of similar material that's come before. When Darren asks if he can become a bat now, Crepsley's matter-of-fact, blunt response is succinctly hilarious.

In addition to its almost playful tone, the film has overtly sinister lighting (The use of purples gives certain moments a haunted house feeling, although it works here) and Gothic backdrops, and the morbid side never becomes overwhelming, as the jokey tone gives it all an edge. It's a tough balancing act, but co-writer/director Paul Weitz makes it work.

There's a lot of the usual growing-into-a-vampire material here, but as taught by the ironic, cynical Crepsley, it gets much more distance than we'd expect. His plan to fake Darren's death is given a shocking punch line, because, you know, you have to make it appear real.

As Darren learns more about the finer details of vampire life, he encounters the usual trials. He has to come to grips with drinking blood. He has to learn to fight. He meets a girl. He's forced to save his loved ones from an evil vampire.

It's nothing we don't already expect, but the particulars of the narrative and the hints of things to come keep it engaging. We learn of an old civil war between vampires who think they need to kill their prey and the others who want to keep it alive (As Crepsley puts it, when you kill your victims, the townspeople are more likely to come after you with pitchforks).

There's the enigmatic Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who rides around in an ominous Rolls and seems to know everything about everyone's destiny. He is also in possession of the menacingly titled Book of Souls, which fits into the story in no way except as mysterious exposition.

That kind of unexplained setup is a major part of the difficult of the opening chapter of a potential series. How interested can we really be in a story that has no clear ending, leaves so much to question, and teases us so? Even with and because of all these open-ended threads, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is an energetic, gloomy, and offbeat fantasy.

It certainly gets one important thing right for a beginning: By the end, we want to see and know more.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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