“Want to become a vampire? It’s a lonely life, but there’s lots of it.”
Vampires, vampires, vampires. Nothing but vampires. All vampires all the time. Vamps have always been popular in one form or another, but these days, it seems they’re hotter than ever. A lot of folks point to Stephanie Meyers’ unimaginably popular Twilight series as the source, but before that there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and before that there was Anne Rice, and before that there was Salem’s Lot, and before that there was Christopher Lee, not to mention all the good stuff I just skipped, and so on and so forth. Riding the vampire wave is Darren Shan’s novel series Cirque Du Freak. These have proven popular enough for the first part, The Vampire’s Assistant, to get the blockbuster movie treatment. Now the question is, does it have bite? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Darren (Chris Massoglia) lives a simple life in the suburbs, where he is seemingly Mr. Perfect, who never does anything wrong. Secretly, though, Darren is fed up with his ordinary life and longs for something more. After some mischief-making with best friend Steve (Josh Hutcheron), they sneak to visit the Cirque Du Freak, a traveling freak show. After witnessing the ghoulish monstrosities on stage, Darren sneaks backstage and steals a rare, giant spider owned by vampiric performer Crepsley (John C. Reilly, Chicago). The poisonous spider eventually gets loose and bites Steve. To save Steve’s life, Darren goes back to the Cirque and makes a deal with Crepsley. The vampire offers to save Steve, but only if Darren agrees to become a half-vampire, work as Crepsley’s assistant at the Cirque, and never see any of his family or friends again.
After rising from the grave, Darren finds himself in a world of quirky wonders among the supernatural Cirque residents, including romance with a cute young costumer (Jessica Carlson). Crepsley teaches Darren the tricks of the vampire trade, including drinking blood without killing. Vamps who kill are not vampires, but the sinister vampaneze, and tensions are brewing between the two. Elsewhere, Steve has learned the truth of what Darren has become, and is furious with jealousy. A mysterious man known only as “Mr. Tiny” offers Steve a chance to become a vampire as well, aligning him with the vicious vampaneze. This sets the stage for two best friends to face off as enemies, as two types of bloodsuckers ignite a war.
I really wanted to like this movie. I mean, a dark circus filled with supernatural oddities used as the backdrop for a secret war between two vampire clans? How cool does that sound? OK, there are some cool moments, like a vamp vs. vamp fight in a graveyard, the chaos caused by chasing the giant spider through a busy high school, and the surprising origin of the little Jawa-like guys who are always running around the Cirque camp. Overall, though, there are numerous narrative missteps that kept me from being drawn into this fun fantasy world.
Ever see a movie where a main character does incredibly stupid things for no reason except that it moves the plot forward to the big scenes in the trailer? This is one of those movies. Darren sneaking backstage and stealing the spider is a stretch, but at least it’s hinted (partially) that he might do so. Later, when an ominously-lit black car pulls up next to Darren and an evil-looking bald man says in a sinister tone of voice, “Get in,” Darren does so without question. Would anyone do this, no matter how much of a rush he or she was in? A big source of this concern is how little we know about Darren. When he’s introduced to us, we’re told he has this charmed life, and everything goes great for him. Then, we’re told that he’s fed up with the so-called “normal” life. This is mostly told through voice-over, in which it’s established that Darren is fascinated with spiders and Steve is fascinated with vampires. We’re only told this, though, and not really shown it, and, as such, it never really comes across in the actors’ performances.
I don’t know if the fantasy of running away from home to join the circus has any relevancy for today’s kids, but this movie gives an enthusiastic try anyhow. Going back to the problems I had with Darren’s character, though, I’m still not clear on how he felt about this. He joins the Cirque in exchange for saving his friend’s life. So does he feel like a prisoner there? Is this a huge, life-changing sacrifice that he’ll later regret? Or, is this a win-win situation, in that it’s what he’s always wanted, and his new life is a dream come true? The movie tries to play it both ways, with Darren pining for his family and refusing to drink blood at times, but enjoying the company of his friends and having fun learning to use his new powers at other times. It’s the frustration of not knowing what the protagonist wants. This, then, makes him difficult to understand and relate to. By the time Darren heads off to the movie’s big finale, we the audience can’t be sure what the personal stakes for him are. Sure, there’s the “man of two worlds” thing, as he’s forced to choose between his new life and his old life, but what we’ve seen in the movie up to that point is contradictory as to what he wants, so that the final confrontation feels hollow. You could argue that Darren doesn’t know what he wants, and that the movie is the story of him figuring that out, but if that’s so, this internal conflict doesn’t seem to be illustrated in any significant way.
Most of my problems with Darren’s character come from the script, but, honestly, a lot of them also come from Chris Massoglia’s performance as Darren. Maybe adolescent girls will disagree with me, but I felt the guy was pretty bland. I never felt his longing to get away from his so-called normal life, I never felt any excitement and/or terror over getting vampirized. Josh Hutcheron fares a little better as Steve. His desire to become a vampire seems to come out of nowhere, because all we’re told prior to that point is one sentence in a voice over that he’s “interested” in vampires. How do you make the leap from “interested” to “will sacrifice everything to become one?” Still, after he’s recruited by the bad guys, Hutcheron brings some satisfying furious anger to his performance. His intensity had me thinking that maybe he should have played Darren. As for the rest of the cast, Reilly does a decent job as the world-weary vampire hoping to avoid the big fight and yet knowing it’s inevitable. Other familiar faces in the cast include Salma Hayek (Dogma), Ken Wantanabe (The Last Samurai), Jane Kazmarek (Ally McBeal), and Orlando Jones (Double Team). They bring a lot of amusing quirks to their roles, elevating the magical feeling of the setting. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly good as a vampire friend of Crepsley’s, but he’s barely in the movie, as the character is likely being established for future sequels.
The visuals on the DVD are impressive, especially during the colorful goings-on at the Cirque camp, and during the “flitting” sequences, a blur effect used when the vampires use their super speed. The audio is a little less impressive. The score and some of the action scenes sound great, but other effects falter, such as when the Cirque’s wolfman lets out a roar. It should be booming and immersive, but instead it comes off as flat and dull. The best of the bonus features is a three-part documentary, “Guide to Becoming a Vampire,” which covers casting, production and effects. It’s well made, and contains interview footage from a variety of folks involved. The deleted scenes are interesting, in that some of them might have helped the movie, but others were wisely excised. The “Tour Du Freak” featurette is a tour of the Cirque camp set, with occasional cast interviews here and there. Some of this repeats information from the other doc, but it’s fascinating to see all the detail and imagination that went into these sets.
This movie has a cool setting, an interesting mythology, eye-popping visuals, and some sweet action. The main character, though, is so frustratingly dull that I simply couldn’t enjoy this one. The folks at Universal no doubt want to franchise this thing to death, and I’m sure they’re wondering if I’d be interested in seeing sequels. Based on what’s here, I’d have to say, not so much. Recast the lead, and maybe we can talk.