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Video Reviews

MPAA Rating
Credits
Genre
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Cast
Chris Massoglia as Darren Shan; John C. Reilly as Larten Crepsley; Josh Hutcherson as Steve; Jessica Carlson as Rebecca; Michael Cerveris as Mr. Tiny
Director
Paul Weitz (American Dreamz, In Good Company, About a Boy, Down to Earth, American Pie)
Distributor
Universal Pictures
In Theaters
October 23, 2009
On Video
February 23, 2010
Reviewer
Paul Asay
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Darren knew better.

After all, the boy has all the tools he needs to make good, solid decisions for himself. He’s tight with his parents. He gets good grades. He’s got a decent sense of right and wrong.

And he’s mostly responsible.

That’s why it’d be tempting to blame the whole convoluted adventure on Steve, Darren’s slightly delinquent best friend. Steve—a guy with a bad home life, a worse attitude and an unhealthy fixation on the undead—really wants to go to a shady performance called Cirque du Freak. Darren, grounded, tells Steve he can’t go. But Steve goads him, telling him he’s a big Mama’s boy.

"You do care about what [your parents] say," Steve sneers. "You do whatever they say."

Darren gives in. And that evening he and Steve find themselves "entertained" by a menagerie of "differently abled" people. There’s the man with two stomachs who constructs a small bicycle inside his belly, vomits it up and rides it off the stage. There’s a wolf-like creature who tears the arm off someone in the audience. (The spectator’s a planted "freak" who’s able to grow limbs back in the space of a standard commercial break.)

And then there’s the mysterious spider charmer Larten Crepsley and his largish eight-legged co-star, Madame Octa. Steve swears this guy’s not simply a Siegfried & Roy wannabe. He’s sure he’s seen Crepsley’s picture before—in a book about the undead.

Steve and Darren linger after the show. And Darren takes a liking to Octa. He decides to "borrow" her, but before he can spirit the spider away, he hears some very bizarre conversations—including one in which Steve begs Crepsley to turn him into a vampire.

No dice, Crepsley says. He says Steve’s blood "tastes of evil," and if there’s one thing Crepsley can’t stand, it’s an evil vampire. So he sends the disappointed lad away. And Darren, seeing his chance to escape, runs off with Octa.

Alas, Darren takes the highly poisonous spider to school with him. And, naturally, the critter escapes. Next thing you know, Steve’s been bitten and plunges into a coma.

There is an antidote, but Crepsley won’t give it to Darren unless the lad leaves his life behind and becomes his assistant. Oh, and he’ll need to become part vampire, too.

"It’s a lonely life," Crepsley admits. "But there’s lots of it."

Positive Elements

Darren makes some pretty boneheaded decisions on his way to becoming The Vampire’s Assistant. But his selfless move to give up his nice life in order to save his best friend reeks of honorable sacrifice. And while the decision leads to some tragic consequences—one of the biggies being the need to "die"—he tries to mitigate that as best he can. Before he embarks on his new life, Darren hops onto his parents’ bed and tells them how much he loves them and what good guardians they’ve been.

Once he changes, Darren tries to fight his growing desire to drink blood. Though Crepsley informs him that "true" vampires never kill the people on whom they feed and that Darren will (really) die if he doesn’t sup soon, he still fights the urge. When his main squeeze, Rebecca, offers him a bit of her blood so he can gather strength, Darren demurs, telling her he’s still holding on to "whatever’s still making me human."

"It’s not what you are," Rebecca tells him. "It’s who you are." The implication, in the context of the film, is obvious: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a "freak" to others. What matters are the decisions you make and how you treat people. And for teens—almost all of whom feel a little freaky at times—that’s a pretty positive message.

Spiritual Content

Traditional religion is practically nonexistent here, sequestered to a church funeral, a glimpse of a decorative cross and a makeshift crucifix. (When Darren presses two of his fingers in the shape of a cross at Crepsley, the gesture has no effect.)

And Cirque du Freak’s vampires feel strangely naturalistic. Crepsley is neither otherworldly beautiful (scars cover his face) or preternaturally young. (In the books upon which the movie is based, vampires age and eventually die, but they do so at a far slower rate.) They may be stronger and move faster than humans can, and they’re also far hardier, but they can be killed with normal weapons. They are not (it’s suggested) necessarily set apart from God: They’re just different.

In this world there’s really no God—not a Christian God, at least—to be set apart from. In the 12-book series Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan, vampires typically shed their previous religions and come to believe that their souls will be reincarnated as wolves. This underlying theology does not appear in the movie, though Crepsley may hint at it.

"Life may be meaningless," he says, "but death I still have hope for."

Elsewhere, Darren and Steve are courted by the mysterious Mr. Tiny, a corpulent, oozily friendly man who can see the future and dabbles in the fates of souls (whatever that means). Tiny hints that Darren and Steve both have an important destiny to fulfill. And he says he hopes to bring about the apocalypse by rekindling a war between vampires and the ze (vampires who kill their victims).

[Spoiler Warning] When folks around Tiny die, he seems to have the ability to resurrect them as gnome-like creatures who do his bidding.

The beautiful Madame Truska also receives glimpses of the future.

Sexual Content

When Crepsley visits Darren’s house, he picks up some magazines and comments on the "interesting reading material."

"I thought this was on the Internet now," he says.

"Mine’s blocked," Darren responds.

Crepsley and Truska are an item, and Truska—often dressed in cleavage-revealing gowns—sprouts a full beard when aroused. "Your mouth says no, but your beard says yes," Crepsley says as he kisses her.

A Cirque du Freak performer kisses Darren, then slaps him, telling him he’s not her type. Darren shares a small smooch with Rebecca.

Violent Content

Cirque du Freak sets the stage for a full-blown vampiric war, so naturally there’s bound to be a little, um, blood.

There are two monstrously frenetic fight scenes loaded with high-speed, ninja-like fisticuffs. The first incorporates tombstones and thigh bones as weapons and culminates with a bloodsucker getting hit by a semi. (The driver jumps out to see if the "victim" is OK, and he’s quickly bitten and killed.) The second utilizes flying blades and theater seats, winding down only when one combatant is killed and another gravely wounded.

Steve kills one of his teachers. Darren, hungering for blood, nearly attacks both his younger sister and an unknown girl he’s sharing a car ride with. Someone threatens to commit suicide by jumping off a roof. Steve tries to kill Octa with a broom before Octa gets the upper … leg … and bites him instead.

When the wolf-man grotesquely severs the arm of a fellow performer, we see the bloody limb. We also see the woman’s arm grow back, arteries and veins sprouting before there’s any skin to cover them.

The woman, by the way, doesn’t mind losing her appendages. During an evening meal, she asks Darren whether he’d like to cut off and eat one of her hands. And later she snips off a finger and shares it with her beau—a man who survives, somehow, without a midsection. (His spine and a few withered organs are fully visible above his waist.)

Crepsley and Darren exchange blood through cuts on the tips of their fingers. Crepsley threatens to hit Darren. After Darren takes a drug to either kill himself or make it look as if he’s dead, Crepsley finishes the job by snapping the boy’s neck and pushing him off a rooftop. Steve, taken in by the ze as their leader-in-training, is brutally stabbed and beaten by the clan.

There are a handful of grotesque gnomes who run about the Cirque du Freak camp and dine on small, dead animals. (Darren collects stiff squirrels and rats from the countryside and tosses them in a trough.) One of the gnomes likes to bite people’s fingers, and at one point he reaches into his chest and pulls out what looks like a heart that’s long past its prime. A tooth gets embedded in someone’s forehead.

Crude or Profane Language

Five s-words. "A‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" are also included in the script. God’s name is misused a handful of times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Steve mentions that his mother’s drunk most of the time. Crepsley and one of his friends share a glass of dark red liquid. Under normal circumstances, we’d assume this was wine. But here, you never know.

Other Negative Elements

Crepsley and the film’s "good-guy" vampires make a big deal of the fact that they don’t kill the folks they feed from. Their breath is imbued with some sort of chemical that can (if desired) render people unconscious, and victims are left blissfully unaware.

But that’s not really the point, is it? Assault is still assault if your victim doesn’t remember it.

Darren and Steve skip class and break lights with rocks. Steve tosses a wadded-up piece of paper in his teacher’s face and, with the help of his ze "mentor," kidnaps Darren’s entire family. The boys lie to get into the Cirque du Freak.

The wolfish creature scratches his testicles onstage.

Conclusion

Our culture has been on vampire overload for the last few years now. From Twilight to True Blood, these undead charmers haunt our media in epidemic numbers.

Why? I credit most of the infestation to the fact that vamps make such versatile vehicles for metaphor. Through the undead, authors, artists and directors can explore themes as diverse as sex, bigotry, the nature of good and evil and—in the case of Cirque du Freak—adolescent alienation.

But most of these stories, like the mythical creatures they incorporate, come with a coffin full of dirt. Namely, bloody violence, grotesque feedings, dank spirituality and bad behavior.

And then there’s this:

Exhibit 439-C (the film I’m reviewing) pokes fun at Darren’s staid, conservative parents as they tell their son he’s on a good path toward a "happy, productive life"—a path that includes college, a job and a family. If you’re lucky, Darren’s father bellows after Darren gets in trouble for skipping class, you’ll be yelling at your teenage son just like this one day.

But we’re given to understand that Darren’s "destiny" lies outside this confining path. And to reach it, he’ll have to disobey his parents and "die" to them forever.

And yet, Darren’s supposed destiny includes Crepsley, who tells the boy where he can go, what he should do and how he should eat (feed)—and all of his advice, onscreen at least, is deemed to be dead-on right. Crepsley (we’re told) erects common sense hedges for Darren’s own good—just as (if one’s thinking clearly on the matter) Darren’s parents tried to do.

Hey, it’s great that Darren has a father figure in Crepsley, but the goodness of their relationship is seriously diminished by the reality that Darren already had a perfectly fine dad—one who doesn’t drink blood for sustenance and charm spiders for a living.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making spiders do tricks. Still, it sounds like a classic case for Social Services, if you ask me.

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