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Funny freaks

Vampire’s Assistant scares up more silliness than fright

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 23, 2009 at 4:15 a.m.

the-vampire-crepsley-john-reilly-welcomes-his-apprentice-dean-chris-massoglia-to-a-strange-new-world-in-cirque-du-freak

The vampire Crepsley (John Reilly) welcomes his apprentice Dean (Chris Massoglia) to a strange new world in Cirque du Freak.

— Cirque du Freak:

The Vampire’s Assistant88Cast: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Michael Cerveris Director: Paul Weitz Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language Running time: 107 minutes

What’s refreshing about Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is that while it’s obviously a vampire movie targeted to a specific (and lucrative) demographic, it’s not the pandering exploitation film you might expect. It’s not all pentup sexuality, ripened teen flesh and brooding ashen untouchable boys. It’s closer in temper to the wild rumpusing of the (early) Indiana Jones movies than the Tiger Beatguest-edited-by-Jane-Austen vibe of Twilight or the soft-core silliness of True Blood.

And while Cirque du Freak is about a boy who becomes a vampire’s assistant, it’s less about seduction than self-discovery. Young Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) is a perfectly well-adjusted high school kid, the popular one who moves easily between cliques and tolerates the campus “freaks.” His best friend is the rebellious Steve (Josh Hutcherson), a vampire-obsessed product of a broken home who hasn’t had all the advantages Darren’s enjoyed.

Steve occasionally prevails upon Darren to stray off his model student path - when the boys get wind of an underground freak show it’s Steve who convinces his friend to sneakoff and attend. There they’re treated to the kind of politically incorrect,CGI-enhanced carnival oddities Tod Browning could only imagine - a scaly snakeboy (Patrick Fugit) with a Stratocaster, a bearded lady (Salma Hayek), and most intriguingly to the boys, a spider wrangler whom Steve recognizes as a 200-year-old vampire, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly).

After the show is raided, Steve goes backstage to plead with Crepsley to make him one of the Lost Boys. Crepsley shines him on, but not before “testing” Steve’s blood to see if he’d make a suitable vampire. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth - hetells Steve he lacks the character to become a vampire.

Unbeknownst to Steve and Crepsley, Darren - who has hidden backstage for his own purposes - witnesses the exchange. And his actions precipitate events that eventually lead him back to Crepsley, to plead for Steve’s life. Crepsley agrees to help - on the condition that Darren become his assistant, a half-vampire who can operate in the daylight, presumably so he can pick up Crepsley’s dry cleaning. (The much different Let the Right One In had a similar theme.)

It eventually develops that Darren and Steve have important roles to play in an ongoing battle between supernatural forces - between the relatively benign vampires exemplified by Crepsley and a more bloodthirsty tribe called “the Vampanese.” In between these groups is the ostensibly neutral provocateur Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a pneumatic dandy who wants nothing more than to be a witness at the apocalypse.

Director Paul Weitz (In Good Company) has created a great-looking world that goofs on the heightened high school fantasies of John Hughes filmsand the red velvet gothic expectations of the genre, but the film’s heart is in the rip-roaring performance from Reilly as the world-weary vampire who hasn’t completely lost his empathy for the living. With his wild red hair and a dusterheavy wardrobe straight out of the ’80s cult film Streets of Fire, he slashes through the movie like an undead Heathcliff. His opposite number is the Vampanese Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson), a jolly sadist who becomes Steve’s mentor. And the young actors are solid too - it will be interesting to see how Massoglia and Hutcherson grow into their roles in the inevitable sequels.

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 10/23/2009

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