The success of the Harry Potter films led many a studio to raid the Young Adult shelves to attempt to find the next big series to appeal to the same demographic. Thus far none of the attempts really succeeded; even the venerable C.S. Lewis series foundered after the successful The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is the latest of these failed series starters. Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) is a stereotypically good, clean-cut kid. He gets good grades, he obeys his parents, and he’s well liked at school. The only times he breaks free of his parents and teachers are when he cuts loose with his friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who, unlike Darren, is a troublemaker from the other side of the tracks. After Steve gets Darren in trouble, his parents forbid him from seeing Steve anymore. When Darren tells Steve this, the two argue-but a strange old black and purple car drives by and from its window floats a flier for the Cirque Du Freak, the world’s oldest (500 years and running) and most spectacular freak show. Naturally the two can’t resist, and so Darren sneaks out and meets Steve and goes to the show.
The show is quite spectacular, far beyond any normal freak show. Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, The Good Girl) who dances with a large brightly colored spider called Octa, particularly engages the pair. Octa fascinates Darren because he loves spiders; Steve knows that Larten is a vampire. Larten overhears Steve tell Darren and warns him that a vampire could be very dangerous to make angry, but both Darren and Steve ignore his warning-Darren steals Octa, and Steve asks Larten to make him a vampire. Larten refuses, telling Steve it’s a lonely life-and also because Steve has “bad blood”. When Octo gets loose at school and bites Steve the next day, Darren turns to Larten for help. Larten gives Steve the antidote-but on the condition that Darren become Larten’s half-vampire assistant. Darren reluctantly agrees, and becomes initiated into Larten’s world.
Of course, The Vampire’s Assistant wouldn’t be a proper Potter pretender if it didn’t include a grander plot, and so there is a war brewing between the Vampires and the “Vampanese”, and Darren and Steve are fated to be “chosen ones” in these coming events. There’s an evil figure manipulating events, Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a very fat man who is known for coming back from the other side-and doing things that scare even Larten.
All of this proceeds as expected without ever really coming together. The film feels like the cliff notes version of more that one book that it is. Terms like “Vampanese” and “half-vampire” are tossed around and never fully explained, and interesting characters show up but never get to do anything of note. As near as I could tell from the film, Vampanese kill humans and Vampires merely feed off them, but as Larten invented the Vampire’s more humane practices, one wonders why he isn’t called Vampanese instead of the other way around. The “Chosen One”, “Learn to Be Yourself” and “Coming Battle that Will Change Everything” clichés are used in a perfunctory and unsatisfying manner. What if Darren was just a kid in over his head for a change? Making us believe these twerpy leads are all-important chosen ones is a fool’s errand. Much of the film feels unoriginal, from characters who look and sound like dead actors, to the rehashed Gollum CG used for Tiny’s servants, to Tiny himself who is a rotund version of the Tall Man (exaggerated physical characteristics, turns the dead into tiny servants dressed like Jawas). Hell, some of the “Darren tries to hide his changing into a vampire” stuff felt ripped from My Best Friend is a Vampire, of all things.
The adult actors are far more engaging than the teen leads (though Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) and Jessica Carlson are fine as Darren’s friends in the Cirque). Massoglia is an irritating screen-presence, and his character is such a dull, dim, dweeb that he is impossible to root for. Steve is an even more irritating, an “evil chosen one” who comes off like Eddie Haskell, and Hutcherson is woefully miscast as a rough kid from across the tracks; he makes a better obnoxious twerp. Reilly carries the film as Larten, helped out by all-too-brief supporting turns by Wilem Dafoe (To Live and Die In L.A.), Salma Hayek (Dogma), Frankie Faison (Do the Right Thing), Orlando Jones (Office Space), Ken Wantanabe (The Last Samurai) and Jane Krakowski (Viva Rock Vegas). Ray Stevenson (The Punisher: War Zone) is passable as Larten’s Scottish Vampanese nemesis Murlaugh, coming off as a vampire version of the Kurgan. The efforts of the adult cast members can’t compensate for the lackluster leads, bland directing and script (co-written by Brian Helgeland, L.A. Confidential) by Paul Weitz (American Pie), so it is hardly surprising that the film was a terrific flop at the box office.