14-year-old Darren (Chris Kelly) was like most kids in his suburban neighbourhood. He hung out with his best friend, got decent grades and usually stayed out of trouble. But when he and his buddy stumble upon a travelling freak show, things begin to change inside Darren. That's the exact moment when a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C Reilly) turns him into something, well, bloodthirsty.
One of the sideshow freaks in Paul Weitz’s adaptation of the teen-gothic novels gets by with no innards; his upper body wobbles on an exposed spine. It is an affliction he exploits for profit, as do all of the mutants in the 'Cirque du Freak’. But having no guts, and boasting about it for financial gain, seems stupid and desperate.
It’s a powerful metaphor for this mess of a film.
Weitz and his writing partner Brian Helgeland (how did the penman behind Mystic River and LA Confidential get mixed up in this...?) become mired in the aesthetic of the grotesque, failing to explore the world of vampires, bearded women, snake boys and monkey girls beyond the dark sets, mood lighting and an occasional, cursory glance to character.
In the first ten minutes of the film we meet straight-A goody-two-shoes Darren Shan (the pretty but wooden Chris Massoglia) and his cheeky alter-ego best-friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson). The opening contains some nice comedic touches, including a clever and very funny flash-forward sequence, in which Darren sees the WASP-fantasy adulthood his parents are grooming him for. After that, Weitz starts to lose control of his fantasy world, when the two boys are presented with a promotional flyer from a passing goth-wagon, inviting them to visit the nomadic burlesque of the bizarre: Mr. Tall’s Cirque du Freak.
There’s a major supernatural conflict brewing between the benevolent vampires who live amongst us, and the evil 'Vampanezee’ (traditional vampires with an insatiable bloodlust) and though it’s never clearly explained in the film, Darren is some kind of chosen-one; he is indoctrinated into the world of freaks by the mysterious vampire/spider wrangler Larten Crepsley (an oddball John C. Reilly), who endures society’s stares knowing he is safe within Mr Tall’s (Ken Watanabe) circus-world.
As Darren is trained in the art of vampire lore and self-defence, Steve is turned into a weapon of the Vampanezee, by the war-mongering Mr Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and his henchmen.
It sounds like there is a lot to work with for Weitz, who has jettisoned his producer/director brother Chris (The Golden Compass, 2008) for the first time, after a series of successful collaborations (In Good Company, 2004; About a Boy, 2002; American Pie, 1999). Despite the potential of both the material and the talent, the film is frustratingly inert. There is no tension as the grander elements of the plot unfold and none of the freaks are given sufficient screen time or emotional resonance to warrant audience empathy. This is despite the presence of Salma Hayek (as The Bearded Lady), 30 Rock’s Jane Krawkowski (who can regenerate torn body tissue), Orlando Jones (as the aforementioned 'Gutless Wonder’, Alexander Ribs), Flight of the Concords’ Kristen Schaal (with teeth that can break metal) and Patrick Fugit (a standout as Evra the Snake Boy, mainly because he’s the only actor who seems to be having fun with his role). Willem Dafoe’s contribution as mysterious vampire Gavner Purl is perfunctory; his meagre involvement speaks volumes about everyone’s wider motives – that the film was based on a series of twelve books (its plot is a compendium of the first three) must’ve had screamed 'franchise pay cheques!" to actors like Dafoe, Hayek and Reilly, who would usually have known better.
One plus is the retro look and feel of the film, which echoes such 1980’s cult items as Tom Holland’s terrific Fright Night (1985), W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984) and Richard Greenberg’s Little Monsters (1989). The one filmmaker from whom Paul Weitz could and should have drawn inspiration is Tim Burton-circa-1988 (when Beetlejuice proved the dark, daring comedy smash of the year); he would surely have had the vision and spirit to turn the Darren Shan story into a macabre masterpiece.
Instead, the gaudy visuals, wan mystique and uninvolving story strands of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant leave the audience feeling exactly as it should when witnessing a parade of unfortunates exploited for their physical deformities: shame at our own curiosity, and pity for all involved.