No one is more surprised than I am that Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is
pretty good. The film looked generic at best, derivative and cheap at
worst, but in reality it’s a fun, teen boy oriented dark fantasy film
with a lot more edge and wit than I might have expected.

Based on a series of young adult novels by Darren Shan, the film
follows the first steps of a young character named Darren Shan into a
larger world. When the Cirque du Freak – a traveling freak show with a
truly shocking series of acts –  comes to his small town, Darren ends
up forfeiting his life and family to become the assistant to Crepsley,
a 200 year old vampire. He also ends up getting embroiled in a vampire
civil war; on one side are the vampires, who eschew killing humans
(they just knock them out and sip from them) and on the other are the
vampenese, who slaughter at will.

Paul Weitz was my favorite Weitz brother up until the horrific American Dreamz, but with The Vampire’s Assistant he reclaims the crown. Weitz, who directed American Pie and About a Boy,
embraces the subversiveness of the story and delivers up a decent PG-13
film rife with swearing and bad behavior and serious peril. Working
with Brian Helgeland on the screenplay, Weitz also finds the honest
character beats that make the story interesting, and together they mine
as many moments for humor as possible. They’re especially helped by
John C. Reilly as Crepsley; Reilly brings a delicious sarcasm to his

Reilly’s the standout of the film, giving it its heart and center.
Despite looking sort of like Ronald McDonald with his orange hair and a
silly suit, Reilly is also a convincing leader, bringing surprising
gravitas at certain moments. His performance is one of many great ones
delivered by the adult actors. and even the younger Patrick Fugit, who
has been so often so bad in so many movies, clicks as the Cirque’s
snake boy. The freaks are very minor characters, mostly there for a few
visual gags, but Weitz has hired capable and familiar actors, helping
to lend these minor roles some weight and meaning.

Sadly, none of the young actors can even begin to keep up with their
elders. Chris Massoglia, who plays Darren, is essentially a lump around
which the film revolves; he has little range and less depth. Tween
sensation Josh Hutcherson, who plays Darren’s best friend and eventual
rival, can act, but in a drippy Disney Channel way that never convinces
or even feels like it’s in the same movie as Massoglia’s low key
mumbles and the adult cast’s wit and charm.

Since the whole movie is about the kids this is a problem. Weirdly it’s
not an insurmountable one; in almost every scene the kids are
surrounded by adult actors, so there’s always someone doing the heavy
lifting of making the film watchable. And Weitz also moves things at a
decent clip so that you never quite have a chance to dwell on how bad
they are; on top of that the wry, dark tone of the film makes for some
nice cover for these kid actors. The action’s also pretty good, and
surprisingly brutal.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is almost
laser-focused on a certain age group – the young, confused teenage
male. As someone who was once part of that demo, I understood what the
movie was going for, and it was nice. This is a surprisingly small and
intimate film, without the scope and sweep of the Harry Potters or even the Twilight series,
but there’s something charming about that as well. The entire thing is sort of charming in a truly entertaining way; as a man in my 30s the film was diverting, but it truly feels like a film that could impact its target audience.

Shan has written 12
books, which apparently keep getting darker and more mature; the movie
contains three or four books worth of material, so there could be three
or four more movies. The universe that’s been created feels like it
could support further adventures, especially as the movie’s mythology
starts getting expounded upon in the third act. There are a number of
players at work, each with  their own agenda, and I’m intrigued by what
some of them could be up to. But The Vampire’s Assistant, which ends on a cliffhanger, feels a little like brother Chris’ The Golden Compass, a movie whose ambition is thwarted right out the gate. I can see Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant being
a film that grabs the imaginations of a whole generation of 14 year
olds who will have their own blogs in ten years and will list this as a
movie that deserved a sequel.

7.5 out of 10