Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan, is a fantasy-adventure about a teenager who unknowingly breaks a 200-year-old truce between two warring factions of vampires. Pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night, one teen will vanish from the safety of a boring existence and fulfill his destiny in a place drawn from nightmares.
16-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia) was like most kids in his suburban neighborhood. He hung out with his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), got decent grades and usually stayed out of trouble. But when he and his buddy stumble upon a traveling freak show, things begin to change inside Darren. That's the exact moment when a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) turns him into something, well, bloodthirsty.
Newly undead, he joins the Cirque Du Freak, a touring sideshow filled with monstrous creatures from a snakeboy and a wolfman to a bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and a gigantic barker (Ken Watanabe). As Darren flexes his newfound powers in this dark world, he becomes a treasured pawn between the vampires and their deadlier counterparts. And while trying to survive, one boy will struggle to keep their brewing war from devouring what's left of his humanity.
I feel like I've been down this path before, numerous times, this year alone. Take a series of books concerning vampires that do not strictly comply to the hardcoded rules of the creature, start a show or film franchise, and hope to piggyback off the success of all things suck (blood). The show based on Charlaine Harris' series ('True Blood') is what I'd equate to be a smashing success, gripping harder than any vampire bite could, while the "work" of Stephanie Meyer, so full of irritating dialogue, creepy emo/pedo staring/brooding, and ridiculous sparkling, makes me wish vampires were never created. I'd rather lose the great works, even 'Nosferatu' and 'Shadow of the Vampire,' if it meant that series never existed.
The series of books by Darren Shan was a virtual unknown to me, until I looked into the film I was to be viewing. Apparently not aimed at teenage girls (hence why it isn't all over fad stores like Hot Topic), the twelve book series had enough success to be repackaged and recompiled, and in the current vampire overload/onslaught, be adapted into a motion picture. The result is something between 'True Blood' and 'Twilight.'
Life seems pretty normal for spider-loving Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) and his best friend (and troublemaker), the vampire-obsessed Steve (Josh Hutcherson), until one day they find a flier for the Cirque du Freak, a sideshow bringing the bizarre to generation after generation (500 years worth, in fact). Darren finds himself lured by vampire Larten Crepsley's (John C. Reilly) spider Octa, and absconds with the rare arachnid, only to cause Steve to fall into a coma.
To save his friend's life, Darren agrees to be Crepsley's assistant, a half-vampire, and has to leave his old life, and family behind in order to join the Cirque. Darren is exposed to the inner workings of the traveling freak show, and soon becomes a part of the peculiar family, which features ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit), monkeygirl Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), bearded lady Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), thin man Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), the big gutted Rhamus Twobellies (Frankie Faison), and even a Wolfman. But an inner-vampire conflict between vampires and Vampaneze is being manipulated by the powerful Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), and Darren finds himself in the middle of a growing war, and on the opposite side of his former best friend.
As much as I wanted to enjoy 'Cirque du Freak,' considering the cast involved and thematic material, I could not get into it, and I can imagine many viewers feeling the same way. The film is utterly incapable of standing on its own two legs; it just feels like it's made to be a first chapter, much like the 'Lord of the Rings' films. That said, the film made so little money in comparison to what it cost to produce (a thirteen million domestic take in exchange for a forty million budget), there is little to no chance the series will continue.
The film just feels much like the freak show it portrays. Nearly devoid of character development, save for the lead two boys (Steve and Darren), with every supporting character getting the shaft. They're distractions, one dimensional characters who only exist for plot development, with no concerns for crafting legitimate reasons for their presence. It's somewhat ironic, honestly.
The acting isn't subpar, but it's also far from stellar. Most disappointing was Reilly, who has to be the most talented performer in the cast, with such a flat performance that it stands out. Hayek has nothing to do, other than grow facial hair (not too far removed from her unibrow in 'Frida'), the great Watanabe may be a ringleader, but he has virtually nothing to do but stand around and gesture. Willem Dafoe feels like his character would play a bigger part in the grand scheme, but here, he's utterly misused by being underused. The other "freaks" aren't as big of names, so their lack of important tasks and roles is somewhat fitting. The villain characters get no development, no purpose, they merely exist to provide conflict with no real point. Wow, generic conflict, woohoo!
Most problematically, the film just does not take off, spread its wings and fly. It stays clipped, restrained. The freaks hardly do anything truly freaky (and this makes some sense, since the film wants to show they are no different than anyone else, save for their deformations, but it doesn't bode well for the sake of interest), the story feels somewhat like 'Eragon,' in that it could be cobbled together by a high schooler obsessed with the genre, and the level of originality is in line with said haphazard (plodding) plotting.
Black and dreary, black and dreary. With those three words repeated for emphasis, the video analysis could be called complete, a sad testament to the quality of the AVC MPEG-4 (1080p, 2.35:1) encode provided 'Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.'
Brilliant moments are often overshadowed (literally) by dreadful problems, negating the positives in an instant. Detail is superb, with absolutely pitch perfect, life-like close-ups, a nice three dimensional look, and clarity as far as the eye can see in any angle. Clothing textures are as realistic as they can get, while skin tones running fairly acceptable levels (these are vampires, after all, so don't expect any rejects from 'Jersey Shore'). There are no aliasing issues, no artifacts, no ringing, and not an inch of banding.
What there is, though, is enough black crush to choke the life out of the film. Characters completely disappear, in moments when it seems that isn't the intent. Colors certainly have a darker tint to them for the most part, and I enjoy that part of the aesthetic of the film, but the constant crush and absolute lack of detail in black levels is beyond frustrating, considering the majority of the film is black, black, black.
'Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant' is given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (with two DTS 5.1 dubs and a descriptive video track) that does a nice job of presenting the film, though it doesn't have much muscle to flex.
Dialogue is sharp, though almost always located in the front channels, despite a few very crowded locales. The clarity in this track is solid, as no amount of background noise goes without distinction, and no amount of score or ambiance can drown out other elements- everything is right where it belongs, without the need to strain one ounce or replay scenes. Bass levels are somewhat subdued, lulled like Octa when his flute is played, but there is a light bit of rumble buried in the track for some subtle punch. Movement effects are present and accounted for with every bit of flitting, as characters zip across channels accurately (though too fast to really leave an impression), while there is the random, somewhat sparse, localized effect thrown in for good measure every so often. This track has nice range and depth, but it is merely limited, as the sound design outlives its welcome fast, as it is much cheaper than it cost, just too thin for a movie this spunky.
I swear I've seen this before. Done better. It was called 'X2: X-Men United,' the whole Pyro/Iceman plot of friends with polar opposite personalities, interests, and super powers, becoming archenemies. I also wish I hadn't seen this, and don't plan on seeing it again. 'Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant' is freakish in name alone, well, that and the end result, which feels like a rip-off of the themes of 'Harry Potter.' This Blu-ray release has shallow extras, problematic video, and limited audio, making this release a tough recommend, other than for genre fans, who may be the most disappointed of all.