Directed by: Paul Weitz (American Dreamz)
Starring: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek
With rampant Twilight hysteria running roughshod over pop culture and the subsequent reactionary knockoff-vampire-movie saturation that looks like it will mar moviegoing for the next few years, it’s nice to know that not all of these vampire flicks based on popular teen-fantasy novels are going to be bad. And while Paul Weitz’s Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is never anything groundbreaking, it is sufficiently stylish and entertaining.
Based on novelist Darren Shan’s beautifully narcissistic, dozen-book strong Darren Shan Saga, the film is the story of a straight-laced teen named Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), of course, and his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson, Journey to the Center of the Earth). The friends sneak out one night to go to a freak show called Cirque du Freak—full of oddities like a bearded woman (Salma Hayek), a snake-skinned musician (Patrick Fugit, still looking for that career Almost Famous (2000) promised) and a man with two stomachs (Frankie Faison, Adam)—where they encounter a vampire named Crepsley (John C. Reilly). Through a series of events—involving the theft of Crepsley’s spider, Octa, and the near death of Steve—Darren reluctantly agrees to be turned into a half-vampire and work for Crepsley at the Cirque in order to save Steve’s life. The movie’s really just the teenage boy’s answer to the Twilight series, with all the superpowers, adventure-film fisticuffs and growing pains this entails.
From here, the movie goes on with the usual spiel about destinies and whatnot, as both Darren and Steve are thrown onto opposite sides of rival vampire factions and an oncoming war between the two. It’s nothing special, and a lot of the exposition is handled in a clumsy fashion that relies too much on narration and a “oh, by the way” attitude that simply throws information in here and there. But at the same time, it does keep the movie from being bogged down in expository minutiae.
The plot, however, isn’t the draw. Director Weitz (beating his brother Chris’ The Twilight Saga: New Moon to theaters by a month) coats the film in enough faux Tim Burton style and the same love of ‘50s horror movies (like Willem Dafoe as the spitting image of Vincent Price) to make the film interesting, but not so much that it becomes tiresome. There’s also a healthy streak of black humor, especially for its PG-13 rating.
But the real star is the cast. While the teens are nothing special, surrounding them with veteran talent was a shrewd move, especially since the film’s a nice reminder that John C. Reilly is still a talented actor—especially obvious in a role he has no business pulling off—no matter how it seems given the last few horrid comedies he’s been in. It all adds up to a pleasantly surprising, equally entertaining little movie that, in all likelihood, will unfortunately be overlooked in the glut of fantasy adaptations and vampire flicks currently in vogue. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language.