Until recently vampire movies were the domain of blood-lusting horror hounds and the occasional Goth kid. Twilight changed that and made blood suckers, much to the chagrin of most horror fans, the domain of lovesick teenage girls. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant attempts to straddle the line between those two possibilities, successfully existing in a darkened middle ground which targets teenagers while maintaining some of the gothic macabre which made vampires so much fun to begin with.
In The Vampire’s Assistant Josh Hutcherson and newcomer Chris Massoglia star as Steve and Darren, two best friends with an interest in the weird. Looking for ways to rebel, they wander into a traveling freak show for what is easily the most brilliantly staged sequence of the film. Inside a darkened and mysterious theater they sit with a scattered audience as the strangest of the strange is unveiled before them. It culminates in an appearance by a man named Crepsley (John C. Reilly in a top hat) and his deadly pet spider. Steve, who has long had an interest in vampires, recognizes Crepsley from one of his books and correctly deduces that he’s a vampire. Armed with that knowledge, as teenagers so often do, Darren and Steve set out to make all the wrong decisions.
Soon they’re both caught up in a world of the dark and disturbed, pulled in different directions by otherworldly vampire forces beyond their understanding. At the center of it all is John C. Reilly, delivering an off kilter performance which is easily the best reason to buy a Cirque du Freak ticket. Reilly is, clearly, having the time of his life. As Crepsley he’s both unexpected and familiar, an ancient vampire weary with years of life, but still full of enthusiasm for whatever surprises can be found in the world. Unfortunately he’s forced to play off Hutcherson and Massoglia, both of whom seem better suited to the world of after school specials.
Still it’s easy to overlook the movie’s teenage leads and focus on Crepsley or the numerously strange characters which surround him at the traveling freak show where he makes his home. You won’t care about the awkward acting of the movie’s kids when Ken Watanabe lumbers into frame as a hunchback of unusual height or when a mildly aroused Salma Hayek predicts the future while sprouting facial hair for the first time since Frida. And then there’s the movie’s masterfully disturbed villain, a shadowy fat man known as Mr. Tiny, played by Michael Cervais. After the movie I was shocked to discover that Cervais is not, in fact, fat. On film he wears what is almost without a doubt the most convincing fat suit ever assembled, convincing in large part because of Cervais utterly committed performance.
Most of all though, credit for how well Cirque works must go to director Paul Weitz. His movie looks fantastic. Weitz has built a fascinating fantasy world all his own here, and while that may not sit well with fans of the book caught up in their own interpretations, it’s almost certain to wow the vast majority of audiences who haven’t read and never will read, the young adult novels on which Cirque du Freak is based. A magical feat of dark tones and contrasting colors, the film’s strikingly realized world is most evident in the freak show scene I mentioned at the outset but it carries on throughout The Vampire’s Assistant. It’s an eye-popping creation with its own ideas about how vampires should look and plenty of freaks to have fun with. Though it’s clearly targeted at teens, Weitz doesn’t water down the potentially horrifying world his movie is set in, instead he mixes it with well timed comedic hilarity to temper the tone. That, along with a brilliant performance from Reilly, is enough to make The Vampire's Assistant is the sort of movie that transcends teenage pandering to become something that’s simply a lot of fun.