Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We're currently in the middle of the biggest vampire movie craze since the late Eighties, so you could be forgiven for looking at the posters for Cirque Du Freak and thinking: "Oh no, not another one." Fortunately, though it packs in a fair number of familiar clich├ęs, this is better than the casual punter is likely to expect. Fans of the Darren Shan book and of Takahiro Arai's original Manga will find that it sticks fairly closely to the plot though it also manages to pack in a heavy helping of teenage angst.

Chris Massoglia is Darren Shan, a straight-A student whose parents urge him to work hard and get to college, get a good job, start a family so that one day he can have a teenager of his own to shout at. But Darren's best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) has a less privileged background and an attitude which could fail them both. Looking for a little adventure, he persuades our hero to join him on a visit to mysterious freak show where they meet a vampire by the name of Crepsley who isn't the least bit impressed by Steve's desire to become an immortal bloodsucking fiend. However, when Steve falls ill and only Crepsley can help, Darren consents to die and to become the vampire's assistant in a bargain which, unknown to them both, marks the start of a deadly game.

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Scruffy and scarred and only inadvertently dashing, Crepsley has none of the glamour generally associated with vampires today, though John C Reilly has no difficulty in making him compelling. This reflects the approach of the film as a whole. Darren is an awkward, naive hero who is easy to like but who often gets things wrong. When he's surrounded by the elegant women of the Cirque where he takes refuge, it's believable that he would fall for shy fellow teenager Rebecca. The kids in his school look less like the usual US teen fodder and more like pupils from Grange Hill. Similarly, his family look like a real family, his mother overweight and his father a bit funny-looking, living in a small suburban house with awful wallpaper, which makes his scenes with them after his transformation all the more affecting.

It's a refreshing approach, but of course it doesn't go all the way - director Paul Weitz knows what many in his audience will want, so we also get vicious bad guys led by the sinister Mr Tiny (Michael Cerveris, channelling Alexei Sayle), and there's plenty of fighting and running about in graveyards. An ancient prophecy of some sort seems to bind together the fates of Darren and Steve, so that even if characters laugh at the notion of turning into bats, the film has its share of familiar supernatural stuff.

This is really where it all falls down. It's clearly just the opening part of a bigger story, so it feels too slight and the ending doesn't really satisfy. There are some cute Manga-esque touches in the high-speed fights, but because we so often can't make out what's happening they lack real punch. There isn't quite enough nastiness to deliver on the film's early promise. Similarly, though the film takes a refreshingly positive attitude to freaks, it rather undermines this by its failure to include any real ones, instead relying largely on CGI. In fact most of the people inhabiting the Cirque aren't visibly freaks at all, just gaudily dressed.

It's a shame, because this film has the stuff to be a real winner. Still, as genre contributions go, it's definitely above average, and it offers an entertaining way to spend two hours.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2009
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Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant packshot
A teenager gets in over his head with vampire politics and finds temporary refuge with a freak show.
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Director: Paul Weitz

Writer: Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, based on the book by Darren Shan and the Manga by Takahiro Arai.

Starring: Chris Massoglia, John C Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Michael Cerveris, Jessica Carlson, Ray Stevenson, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe

Year: 2009

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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