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Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 15, 2010

    Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Review

    “What's worse than death?”

    “Oh, lots of things.”

    Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief, Lemony Snicket, The Golden Compass, Twilight ... the endless procession of modern teen-based fantasy adaptations churns ever onward. Irishman Darren Shan's twelve-book series of vampiric/carnival novels - which I haven't read, you understand - seem, in theory, to be just as perfect for big screen spectacle and visual razzle-dazzle as any of the aforementioned, but the general consensus upon The Vampire's Assistant: Cirque Du Freak around its theatrical release wasn't overly enamoured. Indeed, after what I had thought was an intriguing marketing campaign of character-based posters that promoted an aura of sinister Carnivale-esque gaiety, the film simply came and then performed a veritable magician's vanishing act. Basically, it was gone before I knew it. And, despite loathing the majority of these younger-oriented pseudo-horror shows, this was one that I had actually intended to see at the flicks. Ahhh well.

    But here we have the US Blu-ray release, from Universal, with which I hope to make amends.

    Typically alienated teen Darren (Chris Mossoglia, whose hair changes dramatically at the midway-point from geek to chic) seeks the taboo-tainted solace of the visiting Cirque Du Freak carnival of the weird and the grotesque that has appeared in town and, together with his slightly more wayward buddy Steve (Josh Hutcherson), enters the strange and dangerous world of vampires, werewolves, snake-boys, tall-dudes, skinny-dudes, twin-bellied dudes, and a bearded Salma Hayek that lie beneath its theatrically macabre façade. Whilst Darren has a fascination for spiders and Steve is smitten with the notion of vampirism, both boys find themselves succumbing to the charms of an existence in the shadows of folklore when John C. Reilly's circus-master, Larten Crepsley, and his supernatural arachnid, Madame Octa, seemingly put a fate-destined spell upon them. It is no surprise to discover that one of those hidden wars is brewing - a veritable blood-feud between the traditional vampires (Larten and his more artistic mob who refuse to kill their victims) and the much-less savoury Vampineze (embodied by legions of slimier and nastier variants who have no such qualms at all) - and that these two high school nerds will each come to play a pivotal, though diametrically opposed, part in it. Throw in a sinister soul-stealing necromancer called Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who looks like Lex Luther in a Kingpin fat-suit, with his own nefarious agenda for the boys and the story becomes as much one about the fracturing of friendship and trust as it does about the inevitability of all-out fang-faced war. Dig a little deeper and the story probes issues of the family dynamic, the status of the shunned societal outcast and the politics of relationships, but director Paul Weitz never intends to let any of these more thoughtful conceits clog a narrative that veers from the blackly comical to the outright fantastical with a degree of carelessness that can only be the result of a creative team unsure of precisely what tone they should be striking. The director/writer/producer is, incidentally, is the brother of Chris Weitz, whose Twilight sequel, New Moon, arrived shortly after his sibling's vampiric adaptation and utterly swallowed it whole, before unceremoniously spitting it back out again.

    Personally, I despise the Twilight films, so The Vampire's Assistant becomes instantly superior as far as I am concerned.

    With Darren taken under Larten's reluctantly protective wing, thus becoming the assistant of the title (and a half-vampire, to boot) and Steve falling for the darker side of the already, ahem, dark side, the tale is both classical in theme, with the two friends finding themselves irrevocably at loggerheads, and neo-gothic in terms of its modifications of creature-traits - coffins are in but crosses are a no-no ... blood-sucking remains a necessity, but bodily transformations are nothing but a pipe-dream. It is also, and this is where the film hits the right chord and works best, devoutly comic-book in execution. Episodic and rarely pausing for breath, Weitz's screenplay, co-written with Brian Helgeland, hammers out some of the major ingredients without subtlety, but does manage to hold some secrets back as well, meaning that we understand who is good and who is bad (well, it is more a case of who is bad and who is much, much worse, actually), but we probably cannot fathom exactly what the point of the grand scheme might be, or how many of these disparate characters figure in it all. Now all this could, of course, be intentional and, being charitable, I would say that it is. But you could also argue that this adaptation tries too strenuously to cover all bases and cater for the fans as well as the newbies. Weitz admits that he takes some liberties with the source material, but this is par for the course and shouldn't be frowned upon. That he manages to make a mostly coherent and consistently entertaining film, at the same time, is a definite feather in his cap.

    “Wanna be a vampire? It's a lonely life ... but there's lots of it!”

    Teens going through that hormonal phase and learning just what their real identity is and which side of the tracks they should be on is, naturally, fertile ground for a horror film, and one now synonymous with those about vampires. It's nothing even remotely original, of course (Near Dark, The Lost Boys, Twilight etc, etc), but the blend of a circus, in which the freaks are even more freakish than you can imagine, and the encroachment of a deeper, darker evil make for something of a Grand Guignol delight, albeit toned-down for the appropriate market. Suddenly, the metamorphosis that Darren and Steve undergo becomes just a part of something much bigger and, hopefully, their plight less clichéd. The teen leads are more than adequate in their respective roles, which, in itself, is something of a minor miracle and the host of more familiar actors are all on fine, if occasionally (and only slightly) miscast scenery-chewing form. The effects from regular monster-makers Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis, are nifty without being totally top drawer, the level of violence is actually quite refreshing and the elements of family threat and subversion are definitely a step in the right direction, sort of combining the jovial jeopardy of the Joker with the unpredictable ferocity of the raw home-invasion of recent and more mature horrors. But there are a few areas in which Cirque Du Freak comes apart at the seams. Not enough to ruin the film, but certainly enough to rob it of the class that it so wants to attain.

    For a kick-off, the tone is all over the place. We've got plenty of horror, but plenty of black-hearted humour to go along with it. Whispers of sorcery lend a sort of formless menace to Mr. Tiny's politely despicable campaign of terror, but his precise creature-category is left rather ambiguous - which, ordinarily, I would say was a good thing, but, here, makes him seem like something of a blurred entity. There is the slapstick, and then the viciousness of the fighting - head-butts, body-slams, elbows in the face, knifings and a sudden neck-snapping - and these two extremes don't sit very agreeably together, leading to a film that is mostly acceptable for kids, but dangerous enough to perturb a parent or two. But, then again, that's the point, I suppose.

    “What - is that a vampire-power? I have super-spit now?”

    “Yes ... you have super-spit now.”

    John C. Reilly doesn't quite cut it as a vampire-chieftain. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that he looks too cuddly and loveable. He reminds me of the CBeebies' uber kids' entertainer, Justin Fletcher - gregarious, tufty-mopped, chubby-cheeked and possessed of the ability to hold innocent souls totally in his grasp, enraptured. But this soul-grasping is not of the scary kind. I like Reilly a lot and, at first, I thought that this would be unusual and inspired casting. That he would transform himself into a creature of hypnotic candour and surreal grace. But whilst his sarcastic sage, Crepsley, is very personable and sympathetic, you can't help but feel that his performance is just too, well, literal. He is performing rather than inhabiting the character, and such a “knowing” depiction cannot help but enhance the film's already pantomimic nature tenfold. Likewise, Michael Cerveris' sweaty-browed and besuited ogre, Mr. Tiny, who is evidently channelling Blofeld (the Charles Gray incarnation) with Victor Buono's sly Dr. Schubert from TV's Man From Atlantis. But, you have to admit that his prosthetic jowls and enhanced girth are very, very convincing. Salma Hayek sprouts whiskers whenever she gets close to a bloke, even languishing beneath a full-on beard of practically Taliban proportions at a couple of dubious clinches, but she has little actual screen-time and even less presence despite her uttering of some prophetic gibberish from time to time. The rank, fetid, fly-encrusted wolf-man is a nice little oddity and quite an original take on the concept, scratching his butt and stooping about a cage that you wouldn't want to clean-out without the aid of a chemical warfare suit. He certainly isn't the noble beast of Lon Chaney Jnr, nor the muscular hell-hound from John Landis, but the makeup deserves kudos because this fleabag really does look smelly. Jane Krakowski from Alley McBeal does a neat trick with regenerative tissue, and Ken Watanabe walks tall, very tall, as the proprietor of the Cirque. Something about that wig sitting atop Watanabe's elongated cranium reminds me of Powers Boothe, though! But have a gander at the other sights milling about the wagons, trailers and tents. You've got an innocent little love-interest who might have more up her skirt than she's letting on - and I'm not talking about a Crying Game style of surprise, either! There's a midget with a head the size of a grandfather clock tottering about with such ungainly dimensions that he resembles a cartoon waiter trying to negotiate a crowded restaurant with a tower of plates in one hand. Orlando Jones' human spinal cord takes the concept of wasting-away to a degree that even Christian Bale couldn't possibly follow, and there's a creepy tribe of little hooded gremlins that look like a cross between those nasty alien mini-monks from Phantasm and Dobbie, the House Elf, from that Hogworts place. You can easily imagine a lengthy series of backstories, X-Men-like, for each of these malformed/quasi-gifted entities and how they came to find comfort and acceptance in the travelling circus.

    “Mr. Tiny's back.”

    “Tiny? Back from the other side?”

    “Just last week he was at the Council library messing with the Book of Souls. He's trying to destroy us all.”

    It is great to see Ray (The Punisher) Stevenson in such an unusual role. Although still obviously something of a bad-ass, he does have the misfortune, thanks to a long back wig and pitch eye-shadow, of looking like Richard Roxburgh's annoyingly camp 80's pop star take on Count Dracula in the wretched Van Helsing. A nice touch has him sharpening his claws with a little grinder. Even Willem Dafoe, looking here like a cross between his rodent-thespian Max Shrek from Shadow Of The Vampire and his sleazy, rake-moustachioed hit-man from David Lynch's Wild At Heart, ups the overtly theatrical spell that the film tries partially to embrace with his portrayal of Crepsley's age-old confederate, Gavner. In fact, it would probably have been a shrewder idea to have maintained a more Clive Barker milieu of avant-garde monstrosity and spectacle than to have simply followed the usual conventions of the genre. With such a ribald pageant of the grotesque, this could have a been a Nightbreed for the iPOD generation, a new Midian peppered with the intoxicating delights of Neil Gaiman's ethereal magic. As it stands, even though some of these wacky characters are memorable enough, the film would struggle to have people wanting more adventures within its hazy in-between world of supernatural power-struggles and mentor-ship. Although I, myself, would probably welcome another visit into this fringe-reality.

    Individual set-pieces are cool and kinetic. Where Larten shinning up the side of a hospital wall seems like a lift from Let The Right One In, his ultra-swift bending through distances with a neon slipstream trailing behind him - the Flash would be envious - are a distinctive addition to the vampirical repertoire. The panic that a liberated Octa causes in the school is amusingly skin-crawling, and the transition from living human being to undead semi-vamp just about manages to be poignant, eerie and darkly satirical. This particular element runs the risk of being both repellent and disturbingly mawkish, but Weitz does well in keeping it mysterious and touching, and brief, at the same time. And the violent encounter with Stevenson's malign gypsy-like Vampineze assassin, Murlough, after a spot of dutiful disinterment is enjoyably bravura and visually stylish. Lit like a comic-book and shot with the kind of inventive grace that recalls Pushing Up Daisies as well as vintage Tim Burton, the film is always great to look at. The FX are mostly terrific. Octa, the spider, is a retina-seducing oddity of lush scarlet and blue, trading arachnophobia for something much more bewitching. The super(natural)sonic “flitting” that the vampires do is a riot of dizzying colour, beautifully caught when two colliding characters are actually frozen in mid-flit. The dissolution of a body into a wizened and dessicated Yoda-esque disciple is nice and gloopy, and there are nifty little CG animated flourishes of veins pulsing and time being sped-up. Some visual gags are quite warped, too - such as Krakowski and Jones meeting one-another for a smooch from either end of a severed finger! Weitz has a fine eye for compositions - a rooftop soliloquy on the swift onset of death, the entrance into the circus camp, the amusing handling of the cemetery sequence - and his DOP, James Muro, works exquisitely with light and shadow, depth and colour to provide something that is never less than rich and lurid. Think EC Comics bathed with Joel Schumacher's energised palette, but a whole lot smoother and more attractive to look at. Shooting in New Orleans brings its own wonderful aura to the film's locations. The massive old theatre-house is a work of true mystique, and the meadow in which the circus is camped is pure fairytale. But the barnstorming cemetery sequence was actually lensed in a genuine graveyard out in Baton Rouge. You have to admire the audacity of filming such a desecration-cum-brawl in a real bone-yard, and staging a fight in a hole dug six feet down between some real graves!

    “Why me before you?”

    “Because I'm the toughest and they'll save me for last.”

    But the problem occurs during the final act which, in its desperate attempts to wrench our interests in an ongoing series, indulges in a climactic battle that is rushed, trivialised and simply doesn't fit with all that has gone before. You get the impression that Weitz realises that he has, perhaps, spent too long on build-up and that the suits in charge will demand something conventional and by-the-book (though probably not any of the books it was actually based on) to wrap things up, but also something that would definitely leave the door open for more. Now, there is a great deal to enjoy with The Vampire's Assistant. It is agreeably dark and amusingly macabre. It doesn't pander to kids and is pretty forthright about the deeds being committed and about the subversive nature of the beast - and there's quite a few of them here - and it has, for the most part, got that mischievous and rebellious quality that doesn't play by the rules and appeals to the more devilish side of the young minds that it intends to captivate. There's something of a Lemony Snicket vibe going on (especially with Stephen Trask's unusual and eclectic score that definitely picks up from where Thomas Newman's music for the archly stylised Jim Carey fable left off), plus a large helping of Something Wicked This Way Comes that takes great delight in both putting youngsters in dire jeopardy and empowering them enough to make them just as dangerous as the initial monsters, themselves. But the rushed denouement and all-too-apparent lack of closure somehow leaves a sour and unsatisfied taste in the mouth, meaning that The Vampire's Assistant will probably just become one of a vast number of footnotes in an already over-stuffed genre.

    This is certainly a film that I would recommend, though. Fast, fun and demented, it has nastier villains than you might have expected and a giddy, helter-skelter approach that makes it far less predictable than many other teen-oriented horror-fantasies. A luminescent spider, a wolf man with a pot-belly, Ray Stevenson as a gypsy New Romantic, a vampire with hair like Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter and, who can forget, Salma Hayek doing a damn fine impersonation of Rasputin, the Mad Monk ... what's not to love?