You can’t blame a movie for trying. Heck, Hollywood has been striving to find another franchise as successful as a certain lightning foreheaded Harry Potter since the sprite little boy wizard wowed the publishing world with his multi-billion dollar bonanza. Again, it’s not for a lack of effort. In the last few years, we’ve seen the attempted start of such noble kid lit entities as Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events, The Golden Compass, City of Ember, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and several others. As of now, no one is championing their return – no matter how financially or artistically successful they appeared to be.
It looks like Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak series will follow suit. While another fine attempt at merging juvenile level Goosebumps horror with full blown family film wish fulfillment, The Vampire’s Assistant (new to Blu-ray from Universal) has a double barreled barrier to overcome – and frankly, it can’t manage either one. First, in a head to head with Hogwart’s favorite, it comes up short. No matter what you think of J.K. Rowling and her tales of magic and myth, she’s a grand storyteller – and she’s been lucky enough to find filmmakers capable of taking her material and whittling it down into its important narrative beats. Since all six films made so far have been huge hits (and two more of the seventh book are on their way), Harry is a huge albatross around any potential franchise’s neck.
The Vampire’s Assistant can’t compete, by comparison. It was not a big box office success, nor did it garner the kind of critical favor that would warrant a return trip. The story itself seems too complicated, too compartmentalized to work as a film. Our hero is Darren Shan (named for the author) who soon becomes embroiled with a carnival of supernatural freaks, including John C. Reilly as brash, ebullient vampire Larten Crepsley. Eventually, Darren and his best friend Steve become members of the undead, taking up competing sides in a predestined clash between the nice neckbiters (represented by Crepsley and his crew) and the evil ‘vampaneze’ monsters comingling around the despotic Desmond Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and his hired muscle Murlough (Ray Stevenson).
It is an intriguing set-up, and strewn across three of the series 12 novels (broken up into four separate trilogies), it would make for a marvelous literary experience. But part of the problem with director Paul Weitz’s adaptation (from a script he co-wrote with Oscar winner Brian Helgeland) is that it’s far too rushed and hurried. Darren and Steve are barely introduced as contrasting personalities before we meet the Cirque, discover Crepsley’s secret, and are thrust into an eon’s old folklore fight. There are dozens of ancillary characters introduced, far too much third act plotting, and a desire to be both quirky and somewhat serious, usually in the same scene (or sentence). The result is a movie bifurcated by motive, a jumble that has a hard time sorting itself out before the special effects and spook show sequences take over.
But there is a bigger problem facing The Vampire’s Assistant, one no one could have anticipated back when Dumbledore was grooming his prized pupil for an eventual confrontation with Valdemort. This new hurdle is entitled Twilight and the sappy spinster favorite has more or less destroyed the Dracula dynasty once and for all. It used to be, the blood drinking members of the undead were fearsome creatures of the night. Now, female fans all over the world believe that Vlad the Impaler was just an angst ridden adolescent who shimmered like a diamond in the bright sunlight and pined away for plain girls who are merely misunderstood by their parents and their peers. This kind of Harlequin romance of horrors, a fictional abomination of everything vampires once stood for, got its start with Lestat’s favorite Earth Mother, Anne Rice. But thanks to Stephanie Meyer and her mediocre scribing talents, the notion of evil bat-men has been pilloried forever.
Cirque Du Freak could also be guilty of being not enough like Near Dark and too much like a Lifetime chick flick. Darren’s dilemma doesn’t have a great deal of macabre bite and much of the material is played for ironic laughs, not straightforward scares. Still, the pall of Twilight taints everything here, from the horrific attempt to turn star Chris Massoglia into a Robert Patterson lookalike on the poster art and DVD/Blu-ray cover to the ridiculous moments of romance tossed in for no discernible reason. True, our wannabe half-breed ends up falling for a girl with a tail, but that doesn’t make matters any less cloying. Like a Creeple People set from the ’60s turned into a plastic Flower Power maker, the obvious dark mischief inherent in Shan’s stories has been overwhelmed by morose puerile puppy love. Tim Burton could have brought his Gothic A Go-Go game here and it will still reek of Meyer’s mopey monsters.
Taken completely out of both contexts, however, Cirque du Freak is quite enjoyable. On its own terms, it’s bubbly and inventive, airy without whishing away into nothing. Call it Something Almost Wicked This Way Comes and you’ll get the idea. Reilly and Massoglia are quite good, with special consideration given to Broadway thesp Cerveris who does a dandy job and balding bad guy Tiny. Sure, there are wasted elements here – Japanese legend Ken Watanabe as a deformed giant, sexy Selma Hayek as a truly atypical bearded lady – and with an far too open ended finale in place, you can smell the sequel that will (probably) never be. If one uses the clichéd criticism of ‘hit or miss’, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant scores more often than it sinks. Of course, in an arena looking for massive home runs, a safe ground rule double does no one much good.
But it’s the filmic framework that drives the final nail into this film franchise’s commercial coffin. No matter what it does, no matter what it strives to accomplish, The Vampire’s Assistant can’t be Harry Potter, nor can it compete with the likes of Twilight and all its ‘eternal love’ lameness. Release it back during the heyday of high concept, or in the paltry pickings of the early ’90s and you’d have an entire generation singing its subliminally subversive aims. But in 2010, with an almost unobtainable standard to reach for and a genre soiler sitting on the sidelines, a movie about teenage boys becoming vampires just doesn’t have the same selling power. Try as it might, in the rally for post-Harry bragging rights, Darren Shan’s Cirque Du Freak can’t contend. In same ways, it was silly for it – or any similarly styled entity – to enter such a race in the first place.