Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Release Date: October 23, 2009

Movie of the Day for Sunday, July 19, 2009
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Looks like the kid is assisting Meatloaf, not a vampire.

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125/169 Max Braden Creepy, and not in the cool vampire way. "Shut up and jump on my back."

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Brothers Chris and Paul Weitz have summoned up an interesting body of work, collectively and individually, in the last decade. Much like the Zucker Abrahams Zucker directing team before them, though, in striking out on their own, they have both shown a willingness to tackle genres other than laugh-a-minute pure comedies. After working together on American Pie (1999), Down to Earth (2001) and About a Boy (2002), Paul pressed forward solo with the lovely and underrated corporate comedy-drama In Good Company (2004) (featuring a trio of finely tuned performances from Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Scarlet Johansson) and the not as successful but not to be entirely discounted American Dreamz (2006), which attempted to combine post-9/11 political satire with reality televison skewering. Hugh Grant’s channeling of Simon Cowell did more for the feature than it did for him. The satire wasn’t as biting or as harsh as it could have been, which resulted in an enjoyable, but defanged, trifle.

Paul Weitz wrote both of those screenplays himself and co-wrote the About a Boy adaptation with Chris and Peter Hedges and what emerges when one considers those three stories is a writer who one can see genuinely cares about the characters he is bringing to life. I find it a rare quality in writer/directors in general (Richard Linklater immediately springs to mind). It doesn’t mean creating nice, likable characters - though they can be - but ones who seem recognizably human and complex and in whom the audience builds an interest. It makes me curious to see how he will handle Little Fockers, the third in the Meet the Parents series, to which he is currently attached. Perhaps he can reign in the excessive vulgarity of Meet the Fockers (which suffered from Spy Who Shagged Me-itis in the crudeness department) and bring back the comedy of discomfort and embarrassment that made the first film so enjoyably unnerving.

For his first project since Dreamz, however, Paul Weitz is following his brother into the world of adaptations of beloved fantasy properties. While Chris Weitz dealt with the controversy and domestic under-performance of The Golden Compass and is now deep in Teen Vampire Romance land with New Moon, Paul is tackling his own vampire-themed project with The Vampire's Assistant, an adaptation of the first three novels (collectively known as Vampire Blood) in Darren Shan’s 12-volume series The Saga of Darren Shan. Since there are a total of four distinct collections (the other three being Vampire Rites, Vampire War and Vampire Destiny) the stage is set for three films (at least) to cover the other collections, with each novel coming in around 200 pages. That is of course, if this first film is successful.

British-born Shan (the writer) sets the stage for some Lemony Snicket-type authorial confusion by narrating the series and claiming that the story of Shan (the character) is based on his own life. Well, the Brits they are a pale lot...

The first three novels tell the story of how a young boy named Darren with a fascination for sideshows and carny life becomes a willing (sort-of) half-vampire assistant to the legendary vampire and spider-wrangler Larten Crespley. Darren must deal with the consequences of his decision, learn to develop a taste for blood and deal with the bitterness of his former best friend, who wants revenge for being deprived of what he feels is his rightful place at Crespley’s side. Later volumes concern Darren’s involvement in a centuries-old vampire feud, noble sacrifices he makes and what he chooses when given a chance to change the course of his history.

The vampire lore and rules in the novels do mirror the Twilight series in the sense that they rewrite a lot of the "given" and traditional rules. Vampires are not eternal. They simply age at a much slower rate than humans (1/10th to be exact). They can not transform into bats, they do not need a stake in the heart to die, though they are harder to kill than humans, and sunlight will not turn them to dust but it will give them a nasty burn, strong sun block be damned!

An adaptation of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant had been considered from the start, after its success in Britain was mirrored when the stories began getting published State-side in 2002. Aimed at the Young Adult audience, they may have gathered acclaim from J.K. Rowling herself, but this decade any film adaptation of a fantasy novel that has not had Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Lion, Witch and Wardrobe in its title has proven to be a crap shoot. Paul Weitz’ adaptation hedges its bets by moving the setting from Europe to the United States with filming having taken place in Louisiana. This certainly provides a good replication of Old World-Gothic but is the sort of change that could irk major fans of the saga.

Relative unknown Chris Massoglia gets his big break as Darren and time will tell if he gets Robert Pattinson-level fandom to follow in the film’s wake. Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe and Patrick Fugit play some of the more striking supernatural parts, while John C. Reilly slips some fangs on as Crespley. This does strike me as unusual casting but Reilly has been giving us the lovable man-boy goofball for awhile and this switch up certainly puts the kibosh on that. (Brett Beach/BOP)

Vital statistics for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Main Cast John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Ken Watanabe
Supporting Cast Chris Massoglia, Patrick Fugit, Ray Stevenson, Michael Cerveris, Frankie Faison, Jane Krakowski, Orlando Jones, Kristen Schaal, Salma Hayek
Director Paul Weitz
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, Paul Weitz
Distributor Universal Pictures
Screen Count 2,754
Talent in red has entry in The Big Picture



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