Saturday, October 24, 2009

Circus Minimus

Film Review - Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Directed by Paul Weitz
Screenplay by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland
Based on the book series The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren (O'Shaughnessy) Shan

There are twelve volumes in the Saga of Darren Shan series of novels for young adults by author Darren Shan (he used the lead character as the "author" so as to give them an autobiographical feel). Press materials for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant tell me that the first three were combined to create this screenplay, but after seeing the jam-packed yet thinly-written results brought to life, you would be forgiven for thinking that they tried to cram the whole dozen into 108 minutes. By the time the closing credits roll, we've been introduced to a small army of characters without getting to know any of them at all. This is one of those reviews where having the cast list and their character names in front of you is essential...which means I probably could have used it while watching the film, too.

Darren and his best friend Steve are high schoolers who happen upon an inner-city
performance of the Cirque du Freak, a traveling carnival of horrors complete with such oddities as a lizard boy, a bearded lady (a barely-registering Salma Hayek), a woman who can regenerate chopped-off hands (Jane Krakowski, horribly wasted), and Madama Octa, a ruby and blue venomous spider who dances under the direction of Larten Crepsely (John C. Reilly). Crepsely serves as ringmaster for his macabre minions, and when Steve's fascination for all things vampiric leads him to confront Crepsely as one of the blood-sucking undead, the boys find themselves drawn into a war between vampires - who only take what blood they require to live - and the human-killing Vampaneze. (An aside: Must all vampires today be involved in internecine conflict? They need a Rodney King moment so they can all...just...get along.)

Darren becomes the titular assistant to Crepsely, but only after he is turned into a half-vampire (he can still walk about in the sunlight). There's one catch: He still has to die to do so, and say goodbye to his former life. This is a moment in the script when you would expect some emotional development, played out through Darren's sense of loss for his old life. The movie not only does not do this; it strains to avoid any relationship development between any characters. That's because, in addition to the characters I've already mentioned, there also a love interest for Darren (a monkey girl with a tail), the operatically villainous Des Tiny, played with an oral fixation by Michael Cerveris, henchmen, skulkers, teachers, family members, and a whole lotta freaks. Oh, and Willem Dafoe, who makes two blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearances as...well, I'm not quite sure who he was. He may have been a vampiric compatriot of Crepsely, or he may have kept his mustache and character from Wild at Heart. What we have here is a textbook case of what I've referred to in the past as TMM - Too Much Movie.

In an overloaded undertaking like this, actors can either fight for the spotlight or just stay out of the way; most of them here choose the latter. Chris Massoglia is an underwhelming screen presence, and as his best friend, Josh Hutcherson can't fill the demands of the role when the character takes a darker turn. (If ever a part was tailor-made for a young Stephen Geoffreys - Fright Night's Evil Ed - this is it.) Reilly is to be commended for tackling a part far removed from his gallery of lovable schlubs, but it's a doughy, shapeless role, not sharp enough to be funny, not menacing enough to be fearsome. Only Patrick Fugit as the Snake Boy finds the way as a slacker rocker, and seems to have stumbled in from a much better movie. His is the only performance that finds some humanity under his scaly green skin.

That lack of humanity is surprising given that the film is directed by About a Boy's Paul Weitz, helming for the first time without his brother Chris. His direction is lost in preoccupation with effects, with a jumpy style that has characters getting from one side of a room to another without actually moving there - and I'm not talking about the magical ones. It's as if he went back and edited out half of the master shots, and we jump from spot to spot until we're ready to cry Uncle. (The less said about the action sequences the better. I'm ready to suggest that directors insecure with fight scenes should turn over the camera to the stunt coordinator or fight instructor; they'll know best how to shoot the activity to make it look good - or at least comprehensible.)

Is the movie set up for a sequel? Of course. (Hey, I just remembered - that's one of the reasons Dafoe was there!) If the opening weekend box office warrants, I just might check out a few of the books in the series. I'm guessing that there is more real emotion on the page than wound up on the screen. If there is a follow-up to Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, I hope that its creators remember the humanity underneath t
he freakiness. And please...think smaller.


Blue Seven said...

My (then 15 year old) nephew came to stay with us last summer and we both ended up reading the Cirque du Freak series over the course of a month or so. I barely remember them now. I'm pretty sure dude was winging it as he went. Kind of surprised they went this route, in that they should have used unknowns on the cheap and made one flick out of each 2 books instead of cramming too much in. I mean really, it's got a built in audience of adolescents already. Is anyone really going to see the damn thing based on any of these mid-level celebs being in it? Weird.

senski said...

Thanks for dropping by, Blue Seven!

I'm not certain adolescents not already familiar with the books are going to enjoy it. The horror elements are very subdued, save for the woman who grows back hands. The vampire kills occur offscreen, and Weitz cuts away before we ever see anyone drink another's blood. Heck, even the PG rated Hammers let us see a few necks get chomped!