“Vampires are so lame,” declare the goth kids on South Park, expressing their disgust for the latest style craze in which freakish behavior becomes just another school-age fad. But for better or worse, and despite the reservations of the original black-clad set, underage bloodsuckers are here to stay, an increasingly vital part of the teenage pop landscape—at least for the near future. Following the semi-smooth transition of the first part of Stephenie Meyer’s obscenely popular Twilight series to the big screen, American Dreamz director Paul Weitz secured the rights to another successful young adult franchise, Irish writer Darren Shan’s 12-book Cirque du Freak, adapting parts of the first three books into The Vampire’s Assistant, a film of rather intermittent pleasures.
Like the jocks turned vamps that so upset the animated goths, the central bloodsucker in Cirque du Freak starts out as a straight-laced teen, dubbed “Mr. Perfect” by his best friend for his clean looks, easy popularity, and perfect GPA. His only quirk is a love of spiders, but that proves to be enough to set the machinery of the undead into motion. Attending a local freak show with his vampire-loving pal Steve (Josh Hutcherson), in which CGI-ed performers grow back lopped off limbs or expose bodily gaps where lungs should be, Darren (Chris Massoglia) breaks into the dressing room of the show’s lead attraction, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), and steals his monstrous red and blue spider. When, in the film’s most kinetic set piece, that creature gets loose at the local high school and bites Steve, Darren strikes a deal with the performer to save his friend’s life.
A one-time vampire, though now “just a vaudevillian,” Crepsley pioneered a feeding method in which his victims were left alive after having their blood removed, a technique that put him and his followers at odds with the murderous Vampaneze. In the middle of a tentative truce with the bloodthirsty enemy, Crepsley converts Darren into a half-vampire to serve as his assistant, and much of the bulk of the film finds the young boy learning his powers, resisting the lure of blood (he’s no Vampaneze), and learning to accept his essential freakishness. But for all its overstuffed canvas of characters and situations (the product of collapsing three books into a single film), much of the picture has a time-marking quality, as if the filmmakers are simply maneuvering their characters into position for the inevitable sequel.
Things start off promising enough. Setting aside a weak bit of suburban conformist satire (Darren’s parents pound the importance of the “college, job, family” lifestyle progression into their son’s head), the opening sequences are filled with enough good humor and wry inventiveness to suggest the possibility of a film a lot less dull than this one. The boys’ initial entry to the freak show conjures up a real sense of foreboding, creepily evoking the intrusion of an appealing hidden world at the margins of our own bland one. Reilly, too, brings a certain manic charm to the proceedings. Camping out underneath a great tousle of red hair, he exudes a dry gallows humor, borne of a centuries-long malaise. “Being a vampire is deeply depressing,” he deadpans, but, as he proves, it also has its moments of amusement.
Unfortunately, that latter quality is in short supply during the film’s lengthy, static central sequence. After the boy’s initial conversion, Darren and Crepsley debunk to the freak show’s summer campgrounds to hide out from the Vampanese. As he slowly pushes toward the film’s conclusion, Weitz tries to spice things up by introducing a gallery of supporting characters (the freak show’s performers), but Salma Hayek’s bearded lady notwithstanding, they’re neither memorable enough as grotesques nor as people to elicit much interest.
At the center of the film is an even less memorable character: Darren himself. I’m not familiar with Chris Massoglia’s prior work, but based on the evidence here, he seems to be one of the least expressive actors working in film, and his bland expression can’t simply be explained away as the inoffensive manners of an all-American boy. A perfunctory love angle between Darren and a pre-sexual young girl is remarkably flaccid and the film’s long-gestating conclusion—composed of a tiresome climactic battle, a few trite moral lessons, and an unresolved ending that neatly sets up the sequel—is scarcely worth the wait.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that this is one film that already has its eye on the next chapter. But if that chapter isn’t any better than this one, then I guess we’ll have no choice but to conclude that the South Park goths were right after all.