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Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
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 the Vampires.
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. Recommended.