Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Although I consider myself pretty au fait with what's going on in the world of films, reading multiple reviews of all the new releases, occasionally a film will pass under my radar. Such is the case with this movie from director Paul Weitz which struck many of the right notes with me. You could ask why a film adaptation of a series of books aimed at 10 to 14 year olds should appeal to this rather more mature viewer, but you could well ask the same question about the Harry Potter franchise, or "The Golden Compass" (2007), or the first of the Narnia movies. Or maybe I just like movies about freaks, since this film was actually something of a mixed bag.

Before watching this film I knew absolutely nothing about its London-born Irish writer Darren Shan, who has in fact penned twelve novels in this particular saga, in a series of four trilogies, of which the first three books form the basis for this adaptation. Apparently Warner Brothers (rather stupidly perhaps) paid a million dollars for the film rights before the first book was published, obviously hoping to spawn another franchise. However since I believe the movie did rather poor business, not even featuring amongst the 100 most profitable films of its year, I would be a little suprised to see a second movie with these characters reach the big screen, although the stage was rather blatantly set up for a number of sequels.

It is the story of two 16-year old best friends: the goody-goody one, actually named Darren Shan, played by one Chris Massoglia rather blandly and the 'bad-boy' played by the more appealing and experienced child actor Josh Hutcherson. Without going into too much detail, they sneak out one evening to attend a travelling freak show where Darren is enchanted by and 'borrows' the talented huge spider controlled by its master, John C. Reilly, whom Hutcherson immediately recognizes as a vampire, vampires being something of an obsession with him. He approaches Reilly to vampirise him, but is refused because he has 'bad' blood, while young Darren ends up as a 'half vampire' in exchange for obtaining the relevant antitoxin after his friend has been bitten by the said spider. So far, so complicated, although the plotline then goes on to encompass the age-old battle between good vampires like Reilly and his weird friend Willem Defoe who do not kill those whose blood they suck and the bad vampires called the vampaneze. None of this really matters a damn although the stage is being set for a final battle, but Reilly is good value in his role of the jaded fangless bloodsucker who takes Darren under his wing and under the protection of the freak show, benevolently run by 'the tall man', Ken Watanabe. Included amongst its attractions are Reilly's current ladyfriend, played by the dishy but heavily bearded Salma Hayak, and a number of other likeable 'freaks', whose 'disabilities' are created by CGI rather than by nature; this is hardly a modern version of Tod Browning's classic "Freaks" from 1932, and can afford to be rather more offhand and jokey about its characters' unusual attributes. There is even a potential love interest for Darren in his new friend 'the monkey girl', whose expressive tail escapes from her clothing when required to assist the action.

If anything the movie is rather too dependent on special effects, some of which are in fact pretty cheesy, but it is by and large an enjoyable romp. I just can't see it going further in delineating the action to come in the would-be vampire wars. It's hardly the new "Twilight" saga and is never likely to find the same popularity, although I found it the more entertaining. I just don't really want to see what happens next. If I were that bothered, I'd read the books, just like my closet 10 to 14 year old would wish me to do.
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