It Ain't Harry Potter
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant painfully exemplifies the trickiest part of making a PG-13 film. It is a movie plagued by not knowing what it wants to be, a schizophrenia extending all the way into its title. "Cirque du Freak" is intriguing, dark, and funny, teetering on the edge of R. "The Vampire's Assistant" is boring, trite and mediocre, teetering on the edge of PG. The latter is not improved by its combination with the former, constantly conspiring to bring the entire film down to its level.
The basic set up is that Crepsley (John C. Reilly) is an old vampire who is discovered by a pair of teenage boys. One thing leads to another and they become vampires (this is all on the movie poster so it's not spoilery). Destiny says the same vague crap it always does: chosen ones, yada yada, so it is written, prophecied, so on and so on. The gist of the story's conflict is that there are two warring sides amongst vampires: those who drain and kill their victims, and those who merely take a furtive taste while leaving their victims alive. Otherwise known in technical terms as "evil" and "good."
There is a hell of a decent cast assembled here, slumming it in oddball minor roles hoping that this has a $50 million weekend and turns into the next Harry Potter cash cow for half a dozen films. Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski, Ken Watanabe, Kristen Schaal, Ray Stevenson. John C. Reilly is surprising, holding up a role that never regresses into the poor man's Will Ferrell that he's made his bread and butter over the last few years. He portrays a genuinely fascinating character: a dark, witty, reluctantly honorable, tragic figure who just wants to be done with the fighting and fade off into obscurity. Brooding vampires are a cliché, but Reilly never really broods, managing to endow Crepsley with a genuinely tired sadness that is rarely seen. Reilly's scenes are simply captivating, and from the moment he appears on screen, you want to know more about this character. His interactions with Hayek, Dafoe, and even his assistant hint at a deep and fascinating character who commands the respect of everyone who knows him, even his enemies.
It's too bad that he's not the main character.
Instead the film's narrative focus is on Crepsley's assistant, Darren Shan, played by Chris Massoglia. Massoglia is unable to muster any charisma of any kind, portraying a dull and unemotive sixteen-year-old with whom we as the audience at no point ever sympathize or identify. He brings all the personality of a piece of cardboard to the role and is blander than a liter of distilled water. The fault's not all his; the script endows his character with essentially no characterization. Darren is average in every way: average parents, average home, decent grades, no real problems, no real triumphs. He's not a character, he's an aggregate statistic of what normal is. The only attempt at giving him some personality is to establish that he hates freaks and that he's obsessed with spiders. So that's the hook that's supposed to get us interested in him as a character: he's a douchebag with a creepy hobby. His entire character arc is an after-school special: golly gee willikers, freaks aren't so bad (there's even a fucking montage), and you've got to just be yourself -- which ends up being the key to the plot, of course.
The other focus is on Darren's best friend Steve, who is the after-school special version of a bad kid. He has problems with teachers, his dad's gone and his mom's an alcoholic. He's also obsessed with vampires and so naturally is totally cool with killing people at the drop of a hat. What is this, a Jack Chick tract? All it's missing is Dungeons & Dragons making him commit suicide, a joint turning him into a crack whore, and a hug from the scout master turning him gay. Look kid, I know school's tough and life's not fair, but maybe in your particular case, your mom's a drunk because her son's an asshole.
The highlights of the film are Crepsley at times openly mocking Darren. "No! No!" Crepsley insists in that slow and furious tone of explaining obvious concepts to idiots when Darren asks if he can turn into a bat, "That. Is. Bullshit." It's all in the disdainful delivery. The first half of the film is dominated by Crepsley and these sorts of interchanges, which makes it very enjoyable, but the second half deteriorates into cliché after trite cliché, culminating in an ending of such monumental narrative laziness that it is in every way equivalent to "the fighting should stop now, we will go our separate ways until the sequel, because the script says we should."
I hate giving recommendations on films like this. On the one hand, John C. Reilly and his portrayal of Crepsley are wonderful, the actual circus of freaks is full of entertaining glimpses of creepy and strange characters ("would you like to eat my hands? They grow back, but they taste wonderful") and the world portrayed resonates with hidden depth. Unfortunately the actual main story, plot, and characters are torn from a horrible after-school special attempt to add a message to Halloween. Maybe rent it on DVD if there's nothing else at the video store, and fast forward through anything without Crepsley? Wait for a YouTube cutup that strips out the lousy half of the movie?
I've gotten two things out of it. I'd really like to see John C. Reilly do something good with no connection whatsoever to the Will Ferrell crew. And I'd like to dig up the dozen-book series upon which Cirque du Freak is based. It is fairly well regarded, though a bit obscure, and I've got that niggling suspicion that the books are vastly superior to the film.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.
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