Friday, October 30, 2009

Cirque du Freak, The Vampire's Assistant: Bloody good

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009) • View trailer for The Vampire's Assistant
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and fantasy mayhem
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.30.09
Buy DVD: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant• Buy Blu-Ray: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant [Blu-ray]

Bang's 17th law of cinema:

The opening credits will give a strong indication of the quality and entertainment value of the entire film.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant has a great set of opening credits.

And, indeed, the film is a lot of fun.
Darren (Chris Massoglia, right) resists drinking blood, even though the much
wiser Laren Crepsley (John C. Reilly) explains that the boy eventually will die
without sustenance. The problem is that Darren hasn't yet been properly
motivated ... but that'll change soon.

This debut screen adaptation of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series cherry-picks key events from the first several books, and that may be the film's only major flaw: It tries to cover too much ground.

Too many characters are introduced too quickly, and the unrelenting pace never really pauses for breath.

At the same time, that certainly immerses us quickly in director Paul Weitz's enthusiastic depiction of these adventures. Production designer William Arnold and visual effects supervisor Todd Shifflett really go to town: Every scene is chockablock with captivating things to see, hear and absorb.

In that respect, this film is very much like an actual three-ring circus: It's impossible to watch everything at once, and repeat viewings will be necessary, in order to pick up little details scurrying about at the corners of many scenes.

Another round wouldn't bother me in the slightest ... and that's the only detail that matters, when judging a film. Do you want to see it again?


Many have tried for the "sweet spot" that perfectly blends thrills and chills in a horror comedy; many have failed. The Lost Boys, back in 1987, got it right; so did Once Bitten and Fright Night (both 1985), Shaun of the Dead and this year's Zombieland.

Weitz's handling of The Vampire's Assistant deserves its place on that list, and it's also more kid-friendly than some: a good, reasonably safe fright flick that can be viewed by all ages.

(An endorsement that'll be regarded as the kiss of death, of course, for the gore crowd more at home with the likes of Saw VI. To each his own.)

Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson, recently seen in the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth) have been best friends for years. Sadly, high school hasn't been good for this relationship; Darren's preference for integrity and good behavior are viewed with scorn by Steve, who definitely heads in the "bad seed" direction.

Both boys remain steadfast more out of habit, despite being increasingly dismayed by the ever-widening chasm separating their values.

A mysterious circus blows through town one day, bearing the same whiff of excitement and danger that Ray Bradbury exploited so well in his classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. The 16-year-old Darren and Steve attend, despite an edict that all patrons must be 21 or older; this is a freak show circus, not a series of namby-pamby clowns and aerialists.

And it's certainly quite an amazing show. More than that, I shall not divulge.

Darren has always been fascinated by spiders; he's thus drawn to the large, pink-and-blue arachnid dubbed Octa that belongs to Laren Crepsley (John C. Reilly), one of the performers. Steve, on the other hand, has always been attracted to vampires ... and he recognizes Crepsley from a picture in one of his many "reference" books.

Both boys make separate visits back stage, after the show; both see and do things they shouldn't. At school the following day, Steve is mortally wounded; Darren, knowing that only Crepsley can help, returns to this foreboding individual and begs for his friend's life.

The vampire  for he is, indeed, a vampire  agrees, but exacts a terrible cost: that Darren agree to become a half-vampire, and remain something of an assistant ... forever.

This theme  the price and necessity of loyalty  runs throughout both this film and Shan's books. It's a good moral point, and well worth the ensuing discussions, and the various decisions that Darren must make. He's an impulsive teenager; he chooses helping his friend over being able to remain with the family that loves him.

Is this a wise choice? Of course not, particularly given Steve's nature.

Will Darren come to regret it? Certainly ... but that's also the point: Actions have consequences, and we must learn to live with them.

Crepsley brings Darren to the Cirque's permanent winter home, where the boy meets and gradually earns the trust of the many fascinating individuals: the gigantic Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), the somewhat psychic and bearded Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), the snake boy (Patrick Fugit), the extremely thin Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), the regenerative Corma Limbs (Jane Krakowski) and particularly teenage Rebecca (Jessica Carlson, utterly adorable), who appears to be completely normal.

Not that "normal" is a word regarded favorably in these surroundings, as Darren quickly learns.

He also discovers that he somehow has been sucked into a centuries-old feud between peace-loving vampires  typified by Crepsley and Gavner Purl (Willem Dafoe), who feed gently and take every effort not to kill their human lunch boxes  and the far more deadly vampaneze: psychopaths and stone killers in the classic bloodsucker vein.

Worse yet, this enmity is of great interest to the corpulent and quite sinister Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who seems bent on meddling with an uneasy truce that has lasted many decades.

And what of the gray, mute, razor-toothed 'tiny people' that wander about the Cirque grounds? They seem far more dangerous than Mr. Tall ordinarily would countenance ... so why does he let them hang around?

Out of breath yet?

Like I said: lots to absorb. But hang on and enjoy the ride; it's well worth the price of admission.

Reilly makes a magnificent vampire: world-weary enough to suggest the unhappy downside of immortality  having to watch loved ones age and die  while still snarky in that way the actor manages so well. He smoothly handles the neat trick of appearing both dangerous and vulnerable: a vampire who has chosen a less violent path due to ethics, not any lack of ruthless ability.

And we can see, in Reilly's eyes, that Crepsley knows things: complicated, celestial things that somehow involve Darren.

(Shan has, after all, written a lot of books in this series; this film only scratches the surface!)

Massoglia makes a likable young hero: suitably conflicted, impatient as his character's age would demand, impetuous at all the wrong moments. Hutcherson, for his part, is the more disturbing dark to Massoglia's light: a diseased soul far too willing to embrace the nasty side of this newly discovered world.

Hutcherson quite credibly conveys the easy slide from "bad kid" to much, much worse.

We don't get to spend nearly enough time with most of the Cirque's other inhabitants, and their characterizations seem to be one-note: Mr. Tall is wise, the snake boy likes music, Madame Truska loves Crepsley (and vice-versa). All these folks are delineated far better in Shan's books, which I've no doubt will fly off the shelves even faster for the next several weeks.

Weitz and co-scripter Brian Helgeland have done a marvelous job of immersing us in Shan's imaginative world, but  in terms of plot  they've bitten off more than they can chew, and attempted to cover too much ground in this first big-screen outing. It remains to be seen whether Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant attracts enough business to merit a sequel...

...but I hope it does.

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