Cirque du Freak: Vampire’s Assistant (2009): Paul Weitz’s Horror Flick

A hybrid of a movie, “Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is part a scary horror flick about vampires, part a magical circus yarn about freaks, and part a coming of age and male camaraderie story. 
 In moments, but only in moments, “Cirque du Freak” justifies each of the above labels and genres, offering some rewards largely due to its ensemble of character actors and visual effects. 
The feature adaptation of Darren Shan’s “Cirque Du Freak” book series, this structurally messy, mishmash of a picture represents a point of departure for director Paul Weitz (the more talented of the siblings; the other being Chris Weitz), better known for such movies as “American Pie,” “About a Boy” and “In Good Company.”
World premiering at Austin’s Fantastic Festival, the film is released by Universal on October 23, in time for Halloween. Commercially, it’s the kind of movie that young, undiscriminating boys would enjoy; with one exception, all the protagonists are males. 
(As a very young boy, I loved movies about circuses with freaky characters and bizarre incidents, such as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and “Trapeze,” not to mention the seminal 1933 horror “Freaks,” and other nocturnal tales set in cemeteries and open graves).
Essentially, “Cirque du Freak” feels like a pilot for a TV series, or mini-series, containing too many characters for its own good, none getting the proper dramatic treatment by way of motivation, psychology, or behavior—not even by Hollywood movieish standards.
This version also suggests tempering in the editing room, as major characters arbitrarily disappear, and then suddenly reappear, with no apparent or logical reason for their appearance or disappearance.  The transitions between acts and sequences are rough and abrupt. I wish the movie were sent back to the editing room for recutting; the messy structure doesn’t meet the criteria defining simple, professional editing.
Some context is in order, because the literary source upon which the picture is based is quite intriguing.  In 2000, British author Darren Shan introduced the first novel in his “Cirque Du Freak” series, titled “The Saga of Darren Shan.” Written in the first person, the book chronicles the struggles of a teenage boy who becomes immersed in the world of freaks and vampires after saving his friend’s life by being turned into a creature of the night.
The book became an instant global sensation and scored legions of fans. Known for its wicked, dark humor, the series has been published in 37 countries and in 30 different languages. “Harry Potter” author J. K. Rowling lauded the first volume as, “a compelling book with a plot full of twists which leaves the reader hungry for more.”
Young readers were intrigued by Darren’s immersion in a world that existed under the surface of their own real and troubled one.  Potentially, the stories of creepy magic, mingled with teenage angst felt by Darren and other members of his adoptive family, are entertaining. The author’s way of describing a boy who is growing up much too fast, soon after he becomes undead (you have to see the movie to understand), is also thematically interesting. Given the right touch, these tales could have served as the subject of a better movie, perhaps even a viable franchise.
The main narrative issues are those of trust and loyalty, or rather, what is the price of maintaining those values? In the course of the saga, Darren pays a high price, in more ways than one, to remain loyal to the friends and the family that he loses.  As a result, the Cirque becomes his family, and the legendary Crepsley not just a worshipped mentor but also a surrogate father. 
At the center of the story is an unlikely friendship, born out of necessity between Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a 220-year-old vampire, who ages ten times slower than humans, and the series’ protagonist, Darren.  Darren’s journey begins as soon as he makes a pact with Crepsley to join the traveling freak show. Among other qualities, the weird vampire can run at the speed of light, and the first time you see Crepsley doing that is quite impressive.
The leaders of the murderous sect are Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and his second-in-command is the vampaneze killer Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). These sociopaths’ motivation is to snatch Darren as soon as he becomes undead. A good foil for Crepsley, Murlaugh is the one Crepsley ends up battling, and we are led to believe that the course of human and vampire history depends on the fate of their battle.
Young viewers will be easily able to relate to Darren’s personal journey from the ordinary life of a schoolboy to the world of vampires and their darker counterparts, the vampaneze. They may also hate Darren’s longtime best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who becomes his enemy by fulfilling his destiny and turning into a vampaneze.  Obsessed with vampires, Steve had always desired to live like a nomad–by his own rules.
Most appealing to young spectators is the fantasy fact that, despite differences, both Darren and Steve had successfully eschewed boringness and normalcy, which infuriates one of their teachers, the rigid Mr. Kersey (Patrick Breen), and mortifies Darren’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Shan (Don McManus and Colleen Camp), though it fascinates his kid sister Annie (newcomer Morgan Saylor).
Unfortunately, after the first bizarre but intriguing reel, in which the lead characters are introduced, the story gets increasingly diffuse in the manner in which it depicts the secondary characters, essentially half a dozen freaks, each born with a physical or mental deformity, suffering from attributes that make them different and deviant.
Take, for example, Mr. Tall, the Cirque’s mysterious owner-operator (played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai” fame), who’s the strong-willed mediator between the vampires and the vampaneze. Mr. Tall’s kindness is matched by his fierce protection of his own breed; he had rescued Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit) when he was a baby, and continues to show extreme tolerance of Crepsley’s rule-bending.
The film’s two most enigmatic, incoherent characters, a combined result of the flawed writing and editing, are Madame Truska (Salma Hayek) and Gavner Purl (Willem Dafoe), who appear and disappear randomly and arbitrarily. Madame Truska, Crepsley’s lover, is a voluptuous bearded lady of the Cirque who’s also a powerful psychic. She’s the first to warn Darren of the looming war between the vampires and the vampaneze.  Madly in love with a vampire, Truska wants Crepsley to love her and settle down, like other normal people.
The most impressive thing about Purl, Crepsley’s longtime friend and fellow vampire, is his physical look, which is inspired by a 1930s photo of Salvador Dali, all the way with the painter’s signature slicked down hair and pencil-thin mustache.
“Cirque Du Freak” is yet another tale heavily suffused with shallow Freudian psychology about generational conflicts between domineering adults (fathers, teachers) and sensitive, misunderstood youngsters.  In this saga, sons like Darren or Steve may have two or three fathers, if you include in this category biological, sociological and symbolic parents.
Larten Crepsley – John C. Reilly
Mr. Tall – Ken Watanabe
Steve – Josh Hutcherson
Darren Shan – Chris Massoglia
Murlaugh – Ray Stevenson
Evra the Snake Boy – Patrick Fugit
Gavner Purl – Willem Dafoe
Madame Truska – Salma Hayek
A Universal release of a Donners Co./Depth of Field production in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Weitz, Ewan Leslie.
Executive producers, Courtney Pledger, Sarah Radclyffe, Andrew Miano, Dan Kolsrud, Kerry Kohansky, Rodney Liber.
Co-producer, John Swallow.
Directed by Paul Weitz.
Screenplay, Weitz, Brian Helgeland, based on the “Cirque du Freak” series of books by Darren Shan.
Camera, J. Michael Muro.
Editor, Leslie Jones.
Music, Stephen Trask; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson.
Production designer, William Arnold.
Art director, Seth Reed; set decorator, David Smith.
Costume designer, Judianna Makovsky.
Sound, Scott Stolz; supervising sound editor, Richard King.
Special effects supervisor, Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner; visual effects supervisor, Todd Shifflett.
Creature and makeup effects designers, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff.
Makeup supervisor, Fionagh Cush.
Assistant director, K.C. Colwell.
Casting, Joseph Middleton.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 108 Minutes.