"The Vampire's Assistant" a carnival of dark energy, fun
Those who are eagerly awaiting the next "Twilight" film can take hope in "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," another film with a teenage vampire as its centerpiece that's based on a series of novels. A fun dramedy with energy, interesting characters and solid special effects, "The Vampire's Assistant" lacks the epic scope and edge generally seen in this genre, but it's vastly more entertaining and accessible than "Twilight."
16-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a normal suburban teenage boy. He hangs out with his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), gets decent grades, and tries to steer clear of trouble. But when he and Steve stumble upon a traveling freak show, things begin to change inside Darren. That’s the exact moment when a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) turns him into something bloodthirsty. Darren must become a "half-vampire" to save his friend Steve from a poison from a spider.
Newly undead, he joins the Cirque Du Freak, a touring sideshow filled with monstrous creatures from a Evra the gentle snakeboy (Patrick Fugit) to a bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and a gigantic ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe). As Darren develops his newfound powers in this new dark world, he becomes a treasured pawn between the warring vampires. Struggling for survival, one boy will struggle to keep their brewing war from devouring what’s left of his humanity.
Comparisons to "Twilight" notwithstanding, "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" stands on its own as an enjoyable, darkly amusing entry in the glut of vampire films and TV shows seen lately. Director Paul Weitz (usually teamed with his brother Chris), of "American Pie" and "About A Boy," seems an odd choice to direct and co-write the film, but he moves the film along with a fast-paced plot and engaging characters, though some of it lacks suspense and a dark edge seen with other vampire movies. And of course, the ending leaves it open for more movies, unsuprising given its source.
Based on the series of books called "The Darren Shan Saga" by Darren Shan, "The Vampire's Assistant" is actually based on the first three books in the series (there are 12 books total), and Weitz along with Brian Helgeland (writer of the recent "The Taking of Pelham 123") does a serviceable job of adapting the novels for the screen. The scope lacks an epic nature and blood - there's actually very little graphic violence here - for obvious PG-13/wide appeal reasons.
Still, Weitz handles the proceedings well, and the highlight of the film is the first-rate special effects, various freakish characters (including a huge, colorful spider), the detailed make-up and the grand orchestral music that adds texture to the film. The mixture of comedy and drama gives the film good balance not to mention some good performances from a large, eclectic cast.
Reilly is particularly memorable who proves he's adept at handling both comedy and drama (and please stay away from Will Ferrell), along with newcomer Massoglia, who reminds of a younger Ashton Kutcher with depth and acting abilities. As his counterpart, Hutcherson does well with an underwritten role, though Hayek is seen far too briefly as the bearded lady, and Willem Dafoe cameos in a non-essential role.
"The Vampire's Assistant" is what "Twilight" should've been: more amusing, entertaining and with better production elements. Some elements are predictable (the showdown between friends, one good the other bad) and obvious while others, such as the "half-vampire" idea provide for some intriguing moments and hopefully will be explored in future installments, which the ending clearly leaves it open for. "The Vampire's Assistant" could've been far darker, but it's still an enjoyable, pre-Halloween outing for those want to get their vampire freak on.