Cirque du Freak: the Vampire’s Assistant, directed by About A Boy’s Paul Weitz and based on the series of young-adult novels by Darren Shan, is a surprisingly good movie with all the requisite scares, humor, characters and excellent performances (at least by most of the cast) you could want. Its a good time at the movies unencumbered by many of the things which handicapped something with similar subject matter like Twilight. The real trick here is that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and in so doing, manages to be fun and entertaining as well as, at points, quite scary.
Going in to this film I was pretty ignorant of the subject matter and its origins, never better illustrated by my wondering why so many teenagers were in the screening of this film during Fantastic Fest. Also, having not read any of the 12 books of the Cirque Du Freak saga, I can’t say how faithful an adaptation it is of the book. But having any prior knowledge of these characters or reading the books is not really a prerequisite for enjoyment of this film. The world created by director Weitz and the rest of his team is fully populated and realized and envelopes you from the first moments. Its a world that anyone, child or adult, should have no trouble understanding and becoming enthralled by.
Fortunately, the filmmakers accomplish this without the need for lots of gore or real violence (the film carries a PG-13 rating) so this film, because of these reasons and due to its origins in the young adult series of novels, is suitable for most teenagers and adults alike. Although, adults may not appreciate one or two of the jokes that fall flat and may wish the film spent more time with the intriguing supporting characters rather than with the film’s two teenage leads, they will still find this a charming and entertaining good time.
Sadly, the weakest part of the movie are the two main teenage leads, Darren (Chris Massoglia) and his envious friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) and as the film is more about their relationship and less about the vastly more interesting Circus characters or John C. Reilly’s Vampire Larten, it suffers. In the film, there’s a war coming between Larten’s group of peace-loving Vampires and the evil-loving Vampaneze, which Steve wants to be part of, and our hero Darren has to decide which side he’s on. Without spoiling it, what do you think happens? Both of the teenage leads, to one degree or another, fall pretty much flat and in some cases, are almost as exciting as watching paint dry.
Still, any scenes in which John C. Reilly participates are elevated far beyond whatever aspirations the filmmakers may have had for them and becomes far more than they could have been without him. In this film, as he is in most other, Reilly is a revelation. In what is definitely not a traditional role for him, Reilly proves yet again that his talent is pretty much boundless and that he can play pretty much any type of character. At first, when I heard about his participation in this film, I admit I was a bit skeptical. But from the first moment he’s on the screen, he makes the character his own and is immensely entertaining.
Cirque du Freak represents what’s best about film such as the Twilight series and also manages to surpass those films in favor of actual story, character and entertainment. Sure, the main two boys could be better, but in the larger context of the film, that doesn’t matter as much. You are entertained throughout and as the film progresses, you tend to forgive its problems (big or small) and just settle in for some good entertainment.
This film follows one of the most important rules that any horror film can follow, especially these days. Its not only got monsters, vampires, a little blood and action, its also got humor. And that’s what separates it, and ultimately makes it better, than the Twilight films. Its serious, funny and fun.
I sincerely hope this film isn’t dismissed as just another attempt to capitalize on the Vampire renaissance that seems to be happening these days. Selling the film short as just some kind of cheap money grab on the part of a studio like Universal would be a disservice to it. Its much better than that. Try to look past the marketing hype and all the other layers of cynicism that permeate modern entertainment and if you do you will see a film that deserves your time and, more importantly, your support.