Universal // 2009 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 23rd, 2010
Meet Darren. He's sixteen going on immortal.
Based on the first novel in a series of vampire stories for young adults written by Irish author Darren Shan, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant tells the story of a teenager named, well, Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia, The Hole) and his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia). The boys, who are die-hard fans of horror flicks and spiders, decide to sneak into a sideshow called Cirque du Freak that they see advertised on an exotically illustrated handbill. There they have a close encounter with Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, Chicago), a vampire who performs a skin-crawling act with a huge, brightly colored, and venomous spider named Madam Octa. After the show, Steve pleads with Crepsley to turn him into a vampire so he can leave the doldrums of high school and parents behind him, but Crepsley refuses because Steve has "bad blood." Fascinated by Madam Octa, Darren later returns to the freak show to steal her from the vampire. It's a bad, bad idea that predictably lands Steve in a venom-induced coma. To save his friend, Darren agrees to become a half-vampire and Crepsley's apprentice. Resentful of the vampire's earlier rejection, Steve falls in with Crepsley's mortal enemies: a violent race of blood-suckers known as the Vampaneze, kicking off an all-out vampire war.
The first 30 minutes of director Paul Weitz's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is whimsical fun in the vein of Richard Donner's The Goonies. It's an adolescent phantasmagoria of awesomeness. If I were 13, I might have fallen in love with it. The movie's opening scenes zip through necessary exposition, introducing us to characters via voice-over, freeze frames, swish pans, and other self-conscious cinematic trickery. It's high-speed fun. But the movie truly kicks into gear when Darren and Steve sneak into the Cirque du Freak sideshow and bear witness to all manner of human oddities, including Madam Truska (Salma Hayek, Frida), a beautiful woman who grows a beard when sexually aroused; Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones, Drumline), the world's most convincing starving artist; Rhamus Twobellies (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs), whose name says it all; Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous), who just wants to play rock 'n' roll; and the show's ringmaster, Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe, Letters From Iwo Jima). The performers and performances aren't those of a real freak show, but of a freak show as imagined by an adolescent boy gazing in rapt awe at an advertising poster for a circus. In real life, the show never lives up to the exotic promise of the poster, but in the first act of Weitz's movie it certainly does. It's too bad, then that Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is unable to maintain its initial sense of fun.
As soon as the movie makes its turn into Act Two, it loses steam -- rapidly. Stripping away most of the character motivations and narrative logic from Shan's book, the movie's story relies on painful contrivances and cliché. Darren steals Larten Crepsley's outsized and deadly spider from the freak show for no reason other than that's what the plot demands (although in an earlier scene he drops the non sequitur that he loves arachnids). That his action quickly spins out of control is such a non-surprise that it's difficult to sympathize with our hero (I mean, really, who steals a vampire's pet spider?). Later, Darren and Steve find themselves on opposite sides of the Vampire/Vampinese war because of the sort of lame-brained misunderstanding of motives that makes for a reasonably funny episode of Three's Company but is aggravating in a feature film -- even a feature film that doesn't take itself all that seriously. Worst of all, once Darren becomes Crepsley's assistant, John C. Reilly's performance veers from genuine menace into curly-haired goofballery. Crepsley performance with Madam Octa at Cirque du Freak is the highlight of show, full of genuine humor and tension. Half affable and half terrifying, Reilly plays the scene with expert showmanship. From the second act onward, though, he begins channeling his Dale Doback character from Step Brothers, only with the rigid, formal diction of a dude who died in the 19th century. It's a terrible let-down (mainly the fault of the screenplay) after the delightful weirdness of his first act performance.
Even though Weitz's film is a limp adaptation of Shan's book, there's nothing limp about the A/V on this Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC transfer, framed at the movie's 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, delivers the goods in the form of crisp detail, vivid colors, and inky blacks. Weitz's chosen color palette is often stylized and over-the-top, but this HD presentation handles it beautifully. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio track is punchy, detailed, and atmospheric. Dialogue is crisp and clear, while music and effects make full use of the entire soundstage and deliver some satisfying LFE.
In the extras department, the Blu-ray boasts the same trio of featurettes found the DVD -- "Guide to Becoming a Vampire," "Tour du Freak," and Deleted Scenes -- as well as a U-Control picture-in-picture option that is thin on running time but contains some interesting information about Shan's book series. The disc is also BD-Live enabled.
Fans of Darren Shan's book series who were hoping the author's work would receive the same sort of loving and slavishly faithful film adaptation that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have received are sure to be disappointed by Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. The movie shorthands both plot and characters, leaving a mess of narrative inconsistencies and a duo of teen heroes who vacillate between drab and mind-numbingly stupid. The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, but the curious should stick with a rental.
Guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review