Twilight for boys.
There's the pitch. There could be no other explanation, despite
the relative merits of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series
of novels. The logic is transparent. You can picture it:
a Universal executive got his hands on the rights to these books, which
had strong international sales and a committed cult following, and positioned
the film adaptation as a competitor to that other, explosive teen vampire
franchise. The studio even went so far as to hire Paul Weitz as
director - the brother of Chris Weitz, director of The Twilight
Saga: New Moon. However, despite the obvious "cash grab"
mentality behind the production, The Vampire's Assistant creates
a credible world populated with engaging lead characters. Plot
holes gape, and the film is derivative, but not insultingly so.
It's entertaining in spite of its flaws, and should thoroughly please
the tween crowd.
Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia)
is a suburban high-schooler without much to show for, except an attraction
to spiders and a ne'er-do-well best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson,
who appears to have studied the work of Jason Hervey in close detail).
After attending a secret performance by the traveling Cirque du Freak,
Darren finds himself absconding with a performing spider belonging to
the vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). From a hiding place
in Crepsley's wardrobe, Darren watches as Steve asks Crepsley to make
him a vampire - and is rejected. Back at school the spider escapes
and bites Steve, putting him in a coma. Darren makes a deal with
Crepsley: if the vampire saves Steve, Darren promises to join
the Cirque as Crepsley's assistant. The deal struck, Darren
is "killed" by Crepsley in order to expedite his escape from suburbia.
As a member of the Cirque, however, Darren learns that there are darker
forces in the world than the vampires, who turn out to be virtually
harmless beings. On the other hand, a group of creatures known
as the Vampaneze are up to no good, and are committed to warring with
It's an unnecessarily convoluted
plot that likely evolved as a result of compressing the first three
Cirque du Freak novels into a single feature film. However,
some further trimming of a subplot or two would have helped streamline
the storytelling and stay focused on the characters. There's
a lot going on in The Vampire's Assistant, but despite the
relentless exposition throughout, Massoglia manages to keep things down-to-earth
with his likeable lead performance as a teenager who behaves like one
- as opposed to the repulsive Byronic nonsense of the brooding Robert
Pattinson in the Twilight films. At no point does Darren
seem wiser than his years, nor does he carry any air of authority.
He's in over his head at the Cirque, and he knows it. Reilly,
who at first seems miscast, makes the most of the world-weary, no-nonsense
Crepsley. Willem Dafoe brightens things up in an amusing cameo;
he plays a vampire who wears a base on his face, but not on his cadaverously
white neck or hands.
Visually, the movie is attractive,
busy, and creative. Weitz and the production team fill the screen
with Burton-esque design concepts, a golden-lit Cirque camp, inventive
creatures, and startling makeup effects. There is a bit too much
reliance on editorial flourishes - slow-motion, whip pans, and the
like - but apart from those trifling moments, The Vampire's Assistant
displays a pleasant visual coherence, and that sets it apart from most
big-budget movies of a similar type.
Ultimately, The Vampire's
Assistant, despite a generic competence and good leads, doesn't
amount to anything new or compelling. There are parallels to be
found with the Harry Potter series, but the world of this film
is less specific than that of Hogwarts. The charm of The Vampire's
Assistant is the natural byproduct of a talented cast and crew.
The critical initial task of adapting the novel's stories for the
purpose of film, however, lacked the passion necessary to build a wholly-imagined
world driven by fully-realized character dynamics.
The enhanced 2.35:1 image transfer is excellent. The Vampire's
Assistant is a dark film, and the blacks are mostly solid.
The production design highlights crimson, purple, gold, and royal blue,
and these colors pop without being oversaturated amid the shadows.
The film is expertly lit and works hard to achieve its many dark sequences.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is engaging, but not revolutionary.
The score by Stephen Trask embraces the style and genre traditions established
by Danny Elfman without ripping them off. Surround effects are
present in several sequences, but ambient surrounds are a little light
for such an atmospheric film.
The few extra features on this disc won't particularly enhance
one's enjoyment of the film, even for fans. Ten minutes of
Deleted Scenes prove the wisdom behind their exclusion from the
final cut. Guide to Becoming a Vampire (20:00) is a three-part
behind-the-scenes featurette that includes appearances by all the key
players; it's informative, but short. Tour du Freak (18:05)
is a kid-friendly featurette that combines making-of content (duplicating
some of the interview material featured in Guide to Becoming a Vampire),
with a tour of the Cirque campsite set.
On one hand, it's no Harry
Potter, and that's regrettable. On the other hand, it's
no Twilight, and that's commendable. The Vampire's
Assistant features capable lead performances and lovely art direction.
I think kids will enjoy this film immensely, despite the fact that it
never rises above the conceptual flaws that preceded its production.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.