Madame Octa is a spider. She’s big and fuzzy and fast, lives in a cage and does tricks for her master, the scar-faced, redheaded vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). She’s also bright red and blue. Of course it could be coincidence, that Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant offers up a central emblem of “freak-ness” designed to appeal to the boys who buy all things Spidey. Or it could be deliberate and cynical.
It’s a little too easy to see the latter in Paul Weitz’s film. Drawn from the popular novels by Darren Shan, it has “potential franchise” written all over it. Make that “desperately-sought-after franchise.” Not a thing in this movie is subtle, from its cheesy special effects to its by-the-numbers storyline to its cardboard cutout characters. Consider the nonentity posing as protagonist, Darren (Chris Massoglia), the pretty boy who has a self-proclaimed obsession with spiders and a best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), thumb-nailed as having an equally unmotivated “obsession with vampires.” Darren’s voiceover provides all you need to know about these high school classmates, whose stumbling on an after hours freak show serves as “rising action.”
The show, located on some “wrong” side of the boys’ nondescript hometown, thrills them no end; Not only does Darren fall utterly in love with Madame Octa (“She’s beautiful!”), to the point that he steals her from Crepsley’s dressing room and hides her the next morning in his locker, but also encounters bearded lady/seer Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), whose vision of his future is all ooky shadows and illegible close-ups, and loses Steve to a dark side, that is, his hope to ditch his loser-life and become a vampire, so he can wreak revenge on all the kids and teachers who were mean to him. (Not that it matters, but Steve also resents Darren, because he has an intact family and gets good grades and is reportedly popular in school; this resentment is figured into that vengeance plot somewhere down the franchise line.)
Darren would rather avoid the bad stuff, being a very nice boy, but, well, he does attend the freak show, and so must pay a kind of price. This has to do with being turned into the film’s titular assistant. Crepsley initiates this lumbering plot turn when he exchanges blood with Darren and the boy is soon wondering how to manage being a half-vampire, able to walk around in daylight but also needing to drink blood (he swears he’ll never do it, but he will, in a kind of sexual-maturational ritual). Following the usual pattern of “good vampires,” Crepsley and his buddy Gavner (Willem Dafoe, here sort of Bobby Peru Lite, but not on screen nearly enough to save this mess) have devised a strategy by which they only suck some blood from victims, leaving them alive and not-vampires. Good vampires can’t be nasty killers, after all.
The more emphatically identified murderers, sworn enemies of Crepsley and Gayner, are the so-called Vamapanese (not that there’s any racism intimated in the term), embodied most brutally by the hulking, mangle-faced Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). He decides early on both to despise and desire Darren, because the boy is somehow and incoherently a chosen one. This means that Crepsley, as Darren’s “mentor,” must also protect him from the human-killing vampires. To that end he moves him into the cirque campground, so they can both be surrounded by freaks, including Crepsley’s main squeeze Madame Truska, their “mystical” and aptly named leader Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), and Darren’s new roommate, Evra the Snake Boy and Aspiring Rock Star (Patrick Fugit).
The sheer pile-on of supporting characters who do little but hint they’ll do more in the sequel, makes this seem a project devised by craven committee. It might be cute to see Darren play drums while green-scaled Evra strums his guitar. It might even be vaguely diverting to see him stare at the other freaks at the campground, werewolves and midgets and acrobats and gollums passing through the frame like kids in a Halloween parade. But it is decidedly disappointing to see him find his overdetermined love interest, Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), the girl who looks “normal” when she hides her monkey tail, then proves so instantly devoted that she does what all girlfriends of vampires must do — give up blood to keep him alive. Its enough to make you want Buffy back.