BLOOD AND CIRCUSES
Main Cast: Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly
Director: Paul Weitz
I had quite the little party at Casa Maine today as the gang got together to plan out my fabulous new benefit concert, I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve See Rain, for Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Northern California relief. We’ve got quite the spectacular show planned for the Hollywood Bowl. The first act is going to be dedicated to rain, wind and flooding. Mr. Ed (my genius set designer, not the talking horse), has come up with a concept for a huge wall of water held back by glass panels behind me and, during the first act finale, when I sing Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again, the panels will drop, releasing thousands of gallons through the proscenium into the front rows, giving those who paid for the premium seats a truly interactive experience. With an additional fifty-dollar donation, we’re going to give them souvenir rain ponchos, sort of like at a Gallagher concert. I’m having the famous caricaturist, Mr. Kevin, do an amusing little portrait of moi on the backs. They are sure to become a collector’s item, if not a museum piece.
We’re not quite as sure what to do with the second act dedicated to fire. I’ve had some rather unfortunate experiences with pyrotechnics in the past so we should find something that balances the excitement of an exploding wall of flames with the safety due to us poor performers. Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, suggested that I engage Mrs. Tuttle’s Tapping Tots and their Roman candle extravaganza, but I still have PTSD over that little incident in Salina, Utah all those years ago. The set list also remains up in the air. Madame Mimi, my vocal coach, suggested that I begin with Burning Down the House, but I’m afraid that might send the wrong message. Hot Hot Hot might be a better choice.
I felt like we made significant progress when we finished up this evening. Everyone left with a long list of action items. Mary Gee and Kim Dee are off to Hancock fabrics to begin creating some fabulous new gowns and Mr. Carl is off to find just the right back up dancers and I am to search my vast music library for more ideas on stunningly superior numbers which will make this concert one for the ages. However, I was a little on the fatigued side, so I decided to stop off in the home theater for a film. It was the cook’s night off so I had to make my own snack, poured a couple of stiff bourbons and looked through the to view pile. My eye fell upon a film from several years ago, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant that I had never managed to actually watch so I popped it in the player and gave it a whirl.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, from 2009, is based on a series of young adult horror novels by Darren Shan known as the Vampire Blood trilogy. It was obviously designed to be the first in a series of films, with a wide-open ending, but it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire so future installments were not forthcoming. Unlike other modern young adult film series such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, it doesn’t have a fully coherent worldview, there are inconsistencies in tone, and the fantasy elements feel forced rather than an organic part of the world. I finished the film wondering what the heck that was all about, not a good place to be left. The beginning of a franchise should always leave you wanting more and wondering where the story is going next.
Our titular hero, young Darren Shan (the novels are first person), played by Chris Massoglia, is your average high schooler with slightly schluby parents, a kid sister and a bad boy best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Steve and Darren sneak out one night to visit a traveling freak show run by Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). Steve has correctly deduced that Crepsley is a vampire and, as he is unhappy in life, he is hoping he might be able to become an immortal and leave his human life behind. Crepsley refuses him due to his ‘bad blood’ (exactly why it’s bad is not clearly explained). Darren, who is an arachnophile, is much more interested in Crepsley’s giant pet spider, Madam Octa (played by some indifferent CGI) and decides the best thing he can do for himself is to steal her and take her to school. Needless to say, she escapes at school and ends up biting Steve, putting him in a coma. Darren, stricken with remorse, returns to Crepsley, and sells himself to him as his assistant in exchange for the antidote. (He has good blood). Crepsley converts Darren to a half vampire, fakes his death, and off he goes to the freak show where he falls in with the snake boy (Patrick Fugit), the monkey girl (Jessica Carlson), and a bunch of slumming character actors including Ken Wantanabe, Michael Cerveris, Salma Hayek, and Jane Krakowski. There’s then a bunch of plot about vampires and another being, vampaneze, who are battling each other, the vampaneze being led by Ray Stevenson who seems to have lost a fight with the International Male catalog. There’s a big showdown in a theater as Steve feels that Darren has stolen the future that should be rightfully his and eventually the freaks move on.
There’s talent behind Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. It was written and directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Mozart in the Jungle) with further screenplay work by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential). There are some great and creepy images, especially in the world of the freak show, but the story telling is completely muddled. When you can’t tell who’s fighting whom or why, you cease to care. I’m still not sure what a vampaneze is supposed to be. At one point I was hoping someone would start singing I think I’m turning vampaneze and explain it all. Unfortunately, there are no musical numbers to be had. They might have helped. All the interesting directorial flourishes that Mr. Weitz can come up with don’t make up for his inability to hold a tonal center. It’s unclear if the film is supposed to be a comedy, a supernatural horror flick, or a teen angst drama, and it lurches between these various points of view.
The other major weakness is the casting of the central role of Darren. The role is severely underwritten as compared to the stronger characters around him and Mr. Massoglia, while handsome and personable, isn’t a strong enough actor to overcome this. Hollywood seems to have agreed as he has barely worked in the nearly ten years since this film was released. Josh Hutcherson, as the tragic Steve, is much more interesting and expressive. He’s also had a much more successful career following this film. The supporting cast generally doesn’t have enough to do (there are too many of them), but Patrick Fugit under a reptilian makeup job, is rather sweet as the snake charmer and John C. Reilly and Ray Stevenson, both old pros, have their moments.
I can’t say that I can recommend Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant but it’s got its guilty pleasures including Orlando Jones without an abdomen and a collection of miniature humanoids that look like living potatoes. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours while folding the laundry.
Mysterious flyers. Flitting vampires. Bratty little sister. Gratuitous hallway stampede. Falling from window. Coffin sleeping. Monkey tail. Regenerative arms. Big ass spider.