CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRES ASSISTANT
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is based on a series of young adult books by Irish writer Darren OShaughnessy who writes under the penname of Darren Shan (the same character as the hero of the books). The Saga of Darren Shan series runs to twelve books consisting of four trilogies, all of which were published between 2000 and 2004. The film here adapts no less than the entire first trilogy. Most of the film is based on the first two books Cirque du Freak (2000) and The Vampire's Assistant (2000), while other elements like the love-interest character of Debbie have been taken from the third book Tunnels of Blood (2000) (although in the book she is a human rather than a freak). Co-writing with Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (see below), Paul Weitz has condensed and eliminated the events of the books, not to mention transferred the locale from Europe to generic smalltown America, as well as added a big battle at the end to set the stage for the coming vampire/vampaneze war that would occupy the presumed subsequent films.
On screen, Cirque du Freak remains a peculiarly unsatisfying effort. It aims for an akilter grotesquerie but Paul Weitzs handling is far too middle-of-the-road for it to ever find such a tone. What Weitz seems to be have been wanting to make is a Tim Burton film something that has the wacky bizarreness of a Beetlejuice (1988), an Edward Scissorhands (1990) or The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). However, he shows surprisingly little affinity for the array of circus freaks. Tim Burton would have placed them centre stage and given each a charmingly banal series of quirks that made them more endearing than the humans. Weitz introduces the freaks in the stage performance at the start, which does hit in with some of the right sense of PG-rated grotesquerie (albeit far too brief), but thereafter relegates them to only minor background appearances. Despite the makeup being inhabited by worthy names like Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski and Kristen Schaal, it is only Salma Hayek doing her 165th sultry sexpot role as a seer who grows a beard when aroused that in any way stands out.
If you compare Cirque du Freak to the series that is obviously trying to emulate the Harry Potter films there seems an essential lack of depth and emotional resonance to its world. The Harry Potter films, for instance, would have placed much more emphasis on Darrens reactions to his death and loss of his family, his curiosity or revulsion at joining the circus and the moral choice he makes at the end to embrace his vampire nature. For Paul Weitz however, these are just flicks of the plotting pen, not issues that he ever deigns to connect with. The dramatic highs of the film become effects set-pieces like the introduction of the freaks, the spider getting loose at school or the climactic vampire showdowns. Even there Weitz does not seem to care too much whether his CGI effects are passable or obvious and there is never much magic generated from that quarter.
The intention seems to have been to conduct a version of Hammers Vampire Circus (1972) as filtered through the sensibilities of Tim Burton but the result comes out more like The Little Vampire (2000) Goes to the Circus. The major killer here has been in casting the vampire role with John C. Reilly. I dont want to be seen to be coming down on Reilly as he has done some solid and worthwhile dramatic work in films like The Thin Red Line (1998), Magnolia (1999) and Chicago (2002). However, in the last few years, Reilly has been discovered by mainstream comedy and frequently cast as the poor mans Will Ferrell or a Ferrell sidekick in films like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) and Step Brothers (2008). When you think of the great cinematic lineage of dark and sinister, sometimes melancholy, other times charismatic and sexy male vampires Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Robert Pattinson, Stephen Moyer cuddly faced, mop-topped John C. Reilly is not exactly the natural name that springs to mind for inhabiting the cape. Not to mention that someone here seems to have the peculiar idea of outfitting and making Reilly up to look like the taciturn twin brother of the Colin Baker incarnation of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005 ).
The rest of the performances are variable. The second-billed Josh Hutcherson gets just the right tone of anger and resentment in his performance as the best friend Steve. Michael Cerveris campily overplays as Mr Tiny. Willem Dafoe makes a bizarre cameo, seemingly decked out as vampire equivalent of the sort of roles that Peter OToole has been getting in the twilight of his career, but equally you are not sure what he is supposed to be doing in the film. The most disappointing performance comes from Chris Massoglia who, though he plays the central character, has been relegated to third on the cast list, perhaps due to the fact that he is probably unlikely to go onto much of a career elsewhere. Outfitted with an unflatteringly square bowl haircut, Massoglia should have been the presence that carried the film but seems oddly detached from proceedings.
Brian Helgelands other films include high-profile works like Assassins (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), Mystic River (2003), Man on Fire (2004), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) and Ridley Scotts Robin Hood (2010). Helgelands genre scripts include A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Master (1988), 976-Evil (1988), Highway to Hell (1991), Conspiracy Theory (1997), Kevin Costners The Postman (1997) and Clint Eastwoods Blood Work (2002). Helgeland has also directed Payback (1999), A Knights Tale (2001), the fascinating Catholic horror film The Sin Eater/The Order (2003), the true-life 42 (2013) about the first Black baseball player and Legend (2015) about the Kray Twins.