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Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

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Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriters: Paul Weitz, Brian Helgeland, Darren Shan (book)
Starring: John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Orlando Jones, Ken Watanabe
Running time: 108 mins
Rating: 12A

You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past year not to have noticed the recent fascination for all things vampire and supernatural. From Harry Potter to Twilight, True Blood to Vampire Diaries, it seems Hollywood and the general public can't get enough of the blood sucking fiends. And now it's time for yet another franchise to get in on the act with Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, a big screen adaptation of the children's book series revolving around schoolboy-turned-half-vampire Darren Shan.

Darren (Massoglia) is just an average boy in average town. Clever, popular and good-looking, with a loving family, the only slightly weird thing about him is his obsession with spiders. And the fact he has a trouble-making best friend called Steve (Hutcherson) who is fixated on vampires. Feeling rebellious one night, they decide to sneak out to visit the Cirque du Freak, the world's oldest travelling freak show. Entering the world of the Cirque, they are enthralled by the "freaks" on parade, including a bearded lady (Hayek), a real-life snake boy (Fugit) and a vampire called Larten Crepsley (Reilly) who owns a magical spider named Madam Octa - bad combination given the boys' aforementioned hobbies.

In fact, Darren is so captivated by the pink fluffy arachnid (seriously), that he decides to steal her, not realising he is making the biggest mistake of his life. Sure enough, the spider later ends up biting Steve and, remembering Crepsley's warning that one bite could be fatal, Darren has no choice but to seek out the vampire and ask for an antidote. Crepsley proposes a bargain - if Darren agrees to become half-vampire and work as his assistant then he will save Steve. And so Darren's new life as the undead begins. What happens next is fairly predictable as Darren struggles to control his newfound urges (red meat, trying not to kill his family) and adjusts to life at the Cirque, after faking his own, rather gruesome death on the advice of Crepsley.

From the opening shot of Darren lying patiently in his coffin playing dead and waiting to be rescued, it's clear that Cirque isn't taking itself too seriously. It oozes an Addam's Family-esque breed of black comedy, but at times it's not certain whether it wants to be funny or dramatic. We're treated to witty one-liners (mostly from Crepsley), but also moral messages about being true to yourself making it appear like Cirque is suffering from an identity crisis. We're given a twist on the traditional vampire lore (they don't kill, can go out in daylight and use their nails instead of fangs) but later we see a pale and brooding Darren with slicked back hair and a leather jacket. Likewise, Reilly can't decide if he wants to be scary or just rather camp. Even poor Darren walks around with a wide-eyed look of perpetual bemusement. That being said, Dafoe injects some true eeriness with his cameo vampire appearance while Hayek impresses with the ability to remain sexy even while sporting bristles on her chin.

That's not to say Cirque isn't enjoyable - far from it - it's just confusing to those unfamiliar with the books. Maybe part of the reason is that director Paul Weitz (ironically the brother of New Moon helmer Chris) has tried to cram three books into one movie. We're introduced to the war between vampires and the vampaneze (more evil vampires) and a freaky man called Mr Tiny (Cerveris) who bangs on about Darren and Steve's destiny, while there's also talk of a famous vampire trio and love interests for both Crepsley and Darren. Countless questions are posed but very few appear answered by the time the credits role, with Weitz preferring to keep the ending open with obvious hopes of a possible franchise.

Cirque is clearly aimed towards the Harry Potter school of fans eager to latch on to a new movie saga about the weird and the wonderful, but it's a strange kind of film. It doesn't contain enough to truly appeal to adults, while it's surprisingly violent content (while done in a comedic way) is certainly inappropriate for the very young viewers, who could also be scared by the genuinely creepy Mr Tiny and bloodthirsty Murlaugh (Stevenson). Nevertheless, it's still worth a watch and does contain some truly spectacular special effects and intriguing performances. But whether it has enough to warrant a long-term franchise - there are 12 books in total in the Darren Shan series - remains to be seen.


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