You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

The first (and likely the last) cinematic adaptation of the popular Brit neck-biter series.

Larten Crepsley - John C. Reilly Mr. Tall - Ken Watanabe Steve - Josh Hutcherson Darren Shan - Chris Massoglia Murlaugh - Ray Stevenson Evra the Snake Boy - Patrick Fugit Gavner Purl - Willem Dafoe Madame Truska - Salma Hayek

Anyone looking to kick off a teen fantasy franchise can draw several valuable lessons from the failure of Universal’s “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” the first (and likely the last) cinematic adaptation of the popular Brit neck-biter series. First, if you’re counting on a property’s built-in fan base, don’t stray too far from the source. Second, make sure the opening entry stands alone; there’s no point wasting energy to set up sequels that’ll never happen. Finally, like brother Chris (“The Golden Compass”), director Paul Weitz seems better suited to comedy than to big-budget make-believe.

Attempting to do for the vampire set what J.K. Rowling did for wizards, Darren Shan’s 12-book “Cirque du Freak” series tells the story of a young outsider inducted into a traveling freak show, where he becomes a half-vampire and learns to fit in among a motley bunch of semi-supernatural types. The film, adapted by helmer Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, focuses on just the first three volumes, unwisely treating the plot like an extended preview for more exciting adventures to follow.

Evidently, there’s a massive war brewing between the vampires (well-behaved bloodsuckers who’ve found a way to coexist with humans) and the more violent “Vampaneze.” Inter-species political strife is just about the last thing a young adult fantasy movie needs, and yet “The Vampire’s Assistant” treats such conflict with total seriousness, suggesting its two generic juvie leads are somehow destined to play pivotal roles in a cosmic power struggle.

The production puts far too much faith in the appeal of newcomer Chris Massoglia, who plays Darren Shan, a rule-abiding, good-grade-earning conformist with the shaggy coif and bland, gumdrop charm of your average Nickelodeon character. Potentially more interesting is his bad-influence best friend, Steve (talented teen star Josh Hutcherson). Steve is obsessed with vampires and flips out when Cirque du Freak comes to town for a one-night-only performance, dragging Chris along for a night of twisted-cool spectacle.

During the show, Steve recognizes fiery-haired emcee Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) from one of his many books on the undead, ducking backstage afterward to see if the larger-than-life entertainer will turn him into a vampire, too. That’s pretty much the last remotely plausible decision by any character in the film: Why does Darren fake his death and become a vampire if that’s Steve’s dream? Why does Steve stick a videogame system in Darren’s coffin if he thinks his friend is really dead? And what could possibly motivate the pair to get mixed up on opposite sides of the great Vampaneze conflict?

“The Vampire’s Assistant” shows all the signs of being reworked into oblivion, with dead-end narrative threads and characters who disappear from its sprawling, unwieldy ensemble (including Salma Hayek, Patrick Fugit, Willem Dafoe and half a dozen others). Weitz has clearly taken on more than he can handle here, and the nuanced attention to character evident in “About a Boy” and “In Good Company” is the first thing to suffer.

The story’s rich milieu echoes that of Disney’s dark “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” though it’s hard to imagine today’s kids harboring fantasies of running away with the circus, and Weitz never convincingly sells the character’s stir-crazy small-town anxiety anyway. There’s a vague sense of how foreign and exciting it might be to become a vampire, with salty language and revisionist vampire humor thrown in to make the film feel subversive, but Darren’s coming of age among the undead carries the same lame lessons as teenybopper TV: “It’s not about what you are; it’s about who you are.”

Pic is well shot but poorly edited, with the interesting bits of detail (namely, anything to do with the Cirque du Freak) compressed into uneven montages. Shan’s source material follows the same archetype used throughout young-adult adventure movies, whether it’s Luke Skywalker going off to be a Jedi or Spider-Man eager to explore his new superpowers, but “The Vampire’s Assistant” is too busy making impossible claims about just how spectacular its sequels will be to serve up a self-contained story with a satisfying finale.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Production: A Universal release of a Donners Co./Depth of Field production in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Weitz, Ewan Leslie. Executive producers, Courtney Pledger, Sarah Radclyffe, Andrew Miano, Dan Kolsrud, Kerry Kohansky, Rodney Liber. Co-producer, John Swallow. Directed by Paul Weitz. Screenplay, Weitz, Brian Helgeland, based on the "Cirque du Freak" series of books by Darren Shan.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), J. Michael Muro; editor, Leslie Jones; music, Stephen Trask; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson; production designer, William Arnold; art director, Seth Reed; set decorator, David Smith; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital/SDDS), Scott Stolz; supervising sound editor, Richard King; special effects supervisor, Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner; visual effects supervisor, Todd Shifflett; creature and makeup effects designers, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff; makeup supervisor, Fionagh Cush; assistant director, K.C. Colwell; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Fantastic Fest, Austin, Texas, Sept. 26, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 108 MIN.

With: Larten Crepsley - John C. Reilly Mr. Tall - Ken Watanabe Steve - Josh Hutcherson Darren Shan - Chris Massoglia Murlaugh - Ray Stevenson Evra the Snake Boy - Patrick Fugit Gavner Purl - Willem Dafoe Madame Truska - Salma HayekWith: Patrick Breen, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Frankie Faison, Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski, Kristen Schall, Tom Woodruff.

More Film

  • Once Upon a Deadpool trailer

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Deadpool' Earns $1 Million on Wednesday

    Fox’s “Once Upon a Deadpool,” a reimagining of “Deadpool 2,” picked up $1 million from 1,566 theaters during Wednesday previews. In the PG-13 version, the Merc with a Mouth retells the heroic sequel as a bedtime story to Fred Savage a la “Princess Bride.” Because there aren’t clear comps, rival studios and industry analysts weren’t [...]

  • Queen of Scots Hair and Makeup

    'Mary Queen of Scots' Hair, Makeup Artist Gave Substance and Style to Battling Queens

    Jenny Shircore has done the makeup and hair of several queens over the years: Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (she won an Oscar for the former) and Emily Blunt in “The Young Victoria.”  In fact, she had to be convinced to do it again for Saoirse Ronan’s Queen Mary and Margot Robbie’s [...]

  • Richard E. Grant Variety Facetime Interview

    Richard E. Grant on Working With Melissa McCarthy on 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

    Richard E. Grant has been winning kudos for his supporting role in Fox Searchlight’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The film, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, was directed by Marielle Heller and stars Melissa McCarthy as real-life celebrity biography Lee Israel. Was “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a fast shoot? Yes, 26 days and [...]

  • WME Veteran Ari Greenburg Promoted to

    WME Veteran Ari Greenburg Promoted to President of Talent Agency

    WME veteran Ari Greenburg, one of the original Endeavor staffers who helped build the talent agency that became an industry powerhouse, has been promoted to president. Greenburg will oversee all daily operations across WME and its offices in Beverly Hills, New York, Nashville, London and Sydney. The promotion recognizes the role that Greenburg has played [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron Says He Owes 'Roma'

    Alfonso Cuaron Says He Owes 'Roma' in Part to Cannes' Thierry Fremaux

    At a special screening of “Roma” in Paris, Alfonso Cuaron said he owed the film to Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who encouraged him to return to Mexico to make a movie – and who, ironically, failed to nab the title for Cannes because of the festival’s spat with Netflix. Fremaux was eager to select [...]

  • Forrest Gump

    Guild of Music Supervisors Awards to Honor Joel Sill; King Princess to Perform (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Guild of Music Supervisors has announced that Joel Sill will receive the organization’s Legacy Award for his contribution to music in film. Sill’s body of work includes “Forrest Gump,” “The Goonies,” “Blade Runner,” “The Color Purple” and “My Cousin Vinny.” He will be joined by Spotify’s RISE artist, King Princess, who will be performing as [...]

  • Vice Christian Bale Sam Rockwell Playback

    Listen: Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell on Early Acting Days and Reuniting for 'Vice'

    PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday. Oscar-winning actors Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell first met 20 years ago on the Italy-set production of Michael Hoffman’s Shakespeare adaptation “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” With the business in their blood [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content