Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Jessica Carlson, Salma Hayek
Directed by Paul Weitz
Distributed by Universal
When you watch as many movies as I do, it’s not often that you’re caught totally off guard and captivated by one that you were sure from the get-go you weren’t going to enjoy very much at all. I know the majority of the reviews for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant have been on the negative side, but damnit, I’m bucking the crowd and coming down on the other side of the fence. It’s far from great — my overall rating is only slightly above average — and it definitely has a few flaws that we’ll get to shortly, but there is a thread of pure movie magic running through it that I do believe will appeal to a select group (like me) who happen to be in the right frame of mind at the time they watch it on home video.
On its surface the storyline of The Vampire’s Assistant is exactly what the McCrocklins described in their early review from Fantastic Fest ’09:
“When Darren (Massoglia), an average boy, gets tired of his average life, he sets out to the freak show that just rolled into town with his best friend, Steve (Hutcherson). Once there the duo drinks in performances by the Snake-boy, the Wolf-man, and of course Larten Crepsley (Reilly) and his giant venomous spider, Madame Octa. When Steve is bitten by Madame Octa, Darren offers his servitude to Crepsley in exchange for the antidote to Octa’s venom and becomes a “half-vampire”. With nowhere else to turn, he joins the Cirque Du Freak, a traveling sideshow.”
But the plot thickens:
“Meanwhile through various means his now jealous friend ends up joining an opposing vampire clan, thus inciting a battle of epic proportions (which is yet to be seen).”
And therein lies the appeal of the film for this writer. Add a new twist or two to the typical vampire mythos, and you get my attention. Make it as interesting as the Vampire/Vampaneze conflict, and I’ll stay for the full ride. Casting Michael Cerveris and Ray Stevenson as the big bads is just the icing on the cake. Plus, even with a bunch of so-called freaks running around, The Vampire’s Assistant is gorgeous to look at. Yes, there’s a lot of CGI, but it fits with the overall feeling that what you’re watching is sort of a half animated/half live action graphic novel. If you let it, the world Weitz and his team created will envelope and entertain you. The sets, the costumes, the effects — they all work together.
But back to those freaks. All the actors in the Cirque — especially Orlando Jones, Ken Watanabe, Jane Krakowski, and Patrick Fugit — do a great job of evoking empathy. But none more so than Tom Woodruff, Jr., as the elderly Wolf-man. And Jessica Carlson as Rebecca, the Monkey-girl love interest of Darren, is adorable. The Tour du Freak featurette goes into more detail on all their characters and is a must-see. Salma Hayek as Madame Truska, however, is a bit of a disappointment. She looks incredibly sexy with her now you see it, now you don’t beard, but her early scenes fall a little flat. As things progress, she finds her footing, but it’s rough going at times.
As for the human side of things, Massoglia and Hutcherson both sell their characters just about 100%. And Willem Dafoe’s not much more than a cameo appearance is memorable enough to keep me hoping for a sequel just so we can see more of him as Gavner Purl, one of Crepsley’s compatriots in the Vampire Clan. Really, the only actor who had me equally loving his portrayal and being confused by it was John C. Reilly. At times his Crepsley is spot on, menacing even, but then out of the blue he turns into an effeminate Elton John. Talk about being taken out of the moment. It probably has to do with Weitz’s decision (as he discusses in the special features) to tone down the really dark nature of the novels on which The Vampire’s Assistant is based. I wish he’d stuck more to the sinister side, but even with the mixed signals Crepsley throws off, I give Reilly all the credit for going balls out in the role.
The Blu-ray package is, as the trend goes nowadays, the one to buy if you have the system for it. Of course a visual experience like Cirque du Freak is going to benefit from 1080p. Two hi-def featurettes, Tour du Freak and Guide to Becoming a Vampire, are on both the DVD and the Blu, and the latter contains 14 more deleted scenes than the former (which sports about 10 of its own). If you dig the flick, you’ll appreciate the extra exposition and additional info to be derived from all the deleted scenes. The Blu-ray exclusives are rounded out by U-Control and BD Live along with Pocket Blu for the iPhone or iPod Touch. Does anybody use those last few features? Let us know in the comments section if you do.
So, as I said at the outset, I’m unabashedly in like with Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Its marketing may be geared toward the tweener and teen crowds, but the product works best for adults, which is why I’m rooting for a sequel. But if one is greenlit, they should hew more closely to the books and just let the freaks proudly be freaks.
3 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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