Review: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, 2009, dir. Paul Weitz

I’m of the firm belief that movies should always be made with the utmost care in craftsmanship no matter who they’re being made for. This belief seeps into every aspect that goes into the finished product that we end up seeing on the big screen after we buy our tickets and find our seats, from what we see (effects, acting, camerawork) to what we don’t (the script) and what we hear (sound, of course). Regardless of audience, every film should have as much attention paid to each of these aspects and all those I haven’t mentioned as possible to provide the best experience possible; it’s just common sense and good logic.

I bring this up because Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant— a 2009 teen rebellion movie built around the mythology of warring vampire clans and a circus sideshow populated with fanastical performers– mostly scores well in each of these categories, save for lightning and cinematography. Maybe teenage boys– surely the target demographic for  Weitz’s story, based on a series of books– don’t care that much if, for example, the 180 rule is adhered to in the productions they favor, but I’m pretty sure that they care enough to be able to make out what’s happening in the key sequences belonging to the films they watch. In the case of Cirque du Freak, that turns out to be a tall order: Bad camerawork and some pretty puzzling use of light– or lack thereof– really mute the best spectacle that the film has to offer, which is too bad because everything else that’s going on works well for the most part.

Cirque du Freak follows two friends, Darren (Chris Massoglia), the model student on the fast track to a bright future in college, and Steve (Josh Hutcherson, one-time Spider-Man hopeful), the kid from the other side of the tracks, as they take a visit to the titular freak show and find themselves entwined in the machinations of rival factions of vampires, represented by Larten Crepsley  (John C. Reilly) and the brutal Murlough (Ray Stevenson). Why is there tension between vampires like Crepsley, who could be thought of as compassionate and humanitarian blood-suckers, and vicious and bloodthirsty Vampaneze such as Murlough? It’s not explained very thoroughly though it all seems to come down to the variations in their philosophical outlooks (vampires like Crepsley feed on humans by knocking them out with vampire magic, after which they gently make an incision in their victim and take a little sip, whereas the Vampaneze seem to be bigger fans of the 30 Days of Night approach), but it sets up an excuse for action scenes and lets the film have fun coming up with all sorts of interesting freaks to dazzle and unnerve us, so I’m not sure how much that really matters.

The imagination in the relative freakishness of the performers and their quirks delights. A man with two stomachs chows down on pieces of metal being broken down by a woman with abnormally large and impressively strong teeth; Jane Krakowski allows a werewolf to eat her arm as part of the act, only for her missing appendage to grow back right before the eyes of the audience. This isn’t particularly high-tech stuff but there’s a nice amount of thought that went into bringing these various traits and characteristics to the big screen from the adapted novels. Caveat: I haven’t read these books and probably never will, so I cannot say with any confidence that fans of the literature will be pleased with how much the film honors their source material. Buyer beware.

Taken on its own merits, though, Cirque du Freak is a respectable enough entry for teenage boys– maybe a lesser version of Twilight but for guys. Certainly the film’s themes about rebellion and seizing control of one’s life should appeal to the teen crowd; Darren’s choice to let Crepsley turn him is at least subconsciously driven by his fear of living a life that’s already been predetermined for him, while Steve wants to become a vampire to attain a greater degree of freedom and autonomy over his destiny.  Staying out late, skipping out on school, having superpowers, and getting the cute girl in the end sounds like a pretty great deal to your average 13-16 year old, I’m betting. Of course all of this doesn’t explain how the film stumbled at the box office, though I’d argue that most people probably don’t care to see John C. Reilly star in a movie where he’s not in full-blown comedy mode.

I can’t see why. He’s excellent here. If the character’s appearance is a little bizarre- that big orange hair of his is a bit off-putting before you get used to it– it may only serve to make him just disarming enough that you can buy a wispy teenager daring to approach him. Crepsley’s a certifiable badass, ancient and powerful and more than adept at fending off his foes with his cool kung fu moves. Reilly’s not an actor I tend to associate with action, but he handles the fight scenes pretty well even though regrettably they’re not particularly well-lit and occasionally cut a bit too haphazardly. I’m sure Mr. Reilly put a great deal of effort into making his movements look good on camera; it seems a shame that the technical aspects of the movie smother his work a bit, but at least the rest of his performance remains intact. He’s sort of the entire backbone of the movie; Darren might be the moral center but Crepsley is the force behind Darren pushing everything forward, and Reilly does an excellent job both giving Crepsley the sort of bored wit you might expect from an unfathomably old creature while making it easy to see why the sideshow performers treat him like a leader and instilling him with a great deal of charm. It’s not one of his most interesting roles but he does a great job bringing some edge and some gravity to the rest of the film, along with the rest of the adult actors– including the unfailingly intimidating Stevenson and smooth, enigmatic Ken Watanabe.

The young leads, Massoglia and Hutcherson, do admirably with the material as well, but I can’t help feeling like the latter outshines the former. Steve is something of a tragic figure, a kid who sacrifices his humanity to feel like he belongs somewhere in his life, and Hutcherson does a great job building that arc and making it all feel believable and tangible. In some ways Darren ends up feeling like the villain here, even though his actions all are meant for the best for both Steve and his own family; that’s how good Hutcherson is. He feels betrayed by his friend even though no betrayal took place and makes the audience– who are privy to the truth and know Darren’s intentions– feel like he might have a point after all. It’s sort of sad to watch Cirque du Freak and know that Hutcherson could have been the next Peter Parker; I imagine he’d have been quite successful in the role given his physicality and his acting chops. But life goes on.

In the end, Cirque du Freak feels solid if a bit disappointing and certainly deserves to have had more mind paid to the technical side of things. There’s a lot to like here, even for people at whom the film clearly isn’t aimed, especially among the generally solid performances. But the areas where the film is sloppy end up bringing it down when they could have elevated the story instead. Cirque du Freak never truly stumbles into shameful territory thanks to Weitz’s confident direction; if he’d done just a little bit more with the lightning and with his camera, then it could have wound up being pretty excellent. The end result is something solid and admirable despite its flaws. Imperfections and all, it’s too bad that we won’t see another film out of this series; in the end, if The Vampire’s Assistant does one thing well it’s set up an ensuing franchise that will surely never see the light of day.

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