Review: ‘Cirque du Freak’ a vampire Frankenstein
October 23, 2009
It’s getting downright batty trying to keep all these vampires straight.
You have your traditional vampires (“Nosferatu”), your blond slayer foils (“Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”), your sexy vamps (“True Blood”), your Euro children vampires (“Let the Right One In”) and your melancholy teenage variety (“Twilight”).
The undead are not only alive, they’re also multiplying and creating new vampire species and subspecies faster than fruit flies. Each has its own version of the mythology: Fangs are optional, bloodthirstiness varies.
The latest entry to this overcrowded field is “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” which arrives with quixotic dreams of a franchise of its own. The source material this time is a series of young adult books known as “Cirque du Freak” or “The Saga of Darren Shan,” written by Darren O’Shaughnessy – who writes under his protagonist’s name, Darren Shan.
We meet the world of “Cirque du Freak” through Darren (Chris Massoglia), a popular, straight-A high-schooler whom his rebellious best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), calls “Mr. Perfect.” His parents lecture him on the path to a “happy, productive” life with the depressingly rigid mantra: “College. Job. Family.”
Though Darren is wide-eyed and naive, he harbors a love of spiders. Steve idolizes vampires. Darren shrugs that these obsessions are “in our blood” – and director Paul Weitz sees fit to prove it to us with a sudden zoom into Darren’s capillaries, where little spiders dance around double helixes.
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Both get a front-row seat to their dark secrets when a traveling freak show comes to town. They’re lured in by a mysterious flyer tossed from a spooky black car (license plate: “DES-TINY”).
At the show – with the help of some digital effects – is a bearded lady (Salma Hayek), the very tall Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), a superthin man (Orlando Jones), a snake boy (Patrick Fugit) and others. The main attraction, though, is Crepsley (John C. Reilly), whom Steve recognizes as a vampire.
Darren and Steve quickly and carelessly involve themselves with the group, and without much ado, Darren becomes a half-vampire (kind of like dual citizenship) and Steve the real deal.
Darren is taken in by Crepsley and lives among the freaks of the touring circus. Steve casts his lot not with Crepsley, but Muraugh (Ray Stevenson), a vampaneze. If that sounds like a cross between a vampire and a chimpanzee, well, you just summed up this film.
It turns out that there’s a centuries-long feud between vampires (who merely sedate their prey and take a taste of blood) and vampaneze (who still take the vulgar, old-fashioned approach to killing people).
These vampires are characterized by their ability to “flit” – that is, run blurringly fast. They also have long and hard fingernails. They do keep the one vampire standby, though: trench coats.
Reilly (a fine actor out of place here) takes being a vampire seriously, but his best bits are his amusing scoffing at conventional vampire traits. He pronounces, “Vampires don’t need cell phones!”
Such jokes are the highlights of the film and suggest what it could have been: an out-and-out comedy. Weitz should have known that, too, having helmed the solid 2004 comedy “In Good Company,” 2002’s “About a Boy” and 1999’s “American Pie.”
Instead, “Cirque du Freak” might be the single most overstuffed movie of the year. You have a high school film crossed with a vampire film crossed with a mutant film crossed with Willem Dafoe cameos.
“Cirque du Freak” races so fast (sorry, “flits”) that no one has any motive except the oft-repeated “Matrix”-esque explanation that “it is written.” The supernatural (which even includes a cannibalistic Jane Krakowski in what feels like a “30 Rock” sketch) and its accompanying history of half-vampires and vampaneze never establishes itself as anything but ridiculous.