As tired as I am in general of stories about vampires in movies and on TV, I'm fascinated by the way in which vampirism is used in each new iteration of the creatures' mythology; in other words, what's it a metaphor for?
In Twilight, for example, blood lust is an alternative to the regular kind, while on True Blood, the vampire populace is a stand-in for virtually any undesignated, oppressed minority.
But what about in Cirque du Freak, which follows a smart and popular high-schooler who becomes one of the undead in order to save his best buddy? He already fits in, so it's not a matter of being "an outsider," and given the film's dearth of longing glances and heaving bosoms, it's not representative of the teenager's repressed (or maybe just yet-undiscovered) sexuality.
Suffice it to say that without a deeper purpose—except maybe the recognition of the absence of one in the main character's life—Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is at best teenybopper fiction brought to life on the big screen, realized as the first installment in a potential franchise that fails to offer reasons why mainstream audiences will want to follow it any further.
Chris Massoglia plays Darren Shan (also the name of the source material's author), a gawky but good-natured high school kid whose biggest problem is his overprotective parents. After they forbid him from hanging out with his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), whom they brand a bad influence, the two of them sneak out together to see a freak show, where among the oddballs and weirdos a real-deal vampire named Crepsley (John C. Reilly) operates as a spider wrangler. Darren absconds with Crepsley's eight-legged costar, but when the spider bites Steve during a showdown the next day at school, his buddy agrees to become a bloodsucker in exchange for the antidote.
Although Steve recovers completely, he develops a deep-seated hatred for Darren when he learns that he has taken his place among the undead, where he himself wanted to be. But when a clan of Vampaneze—vampires who believe in killing or converting their prey—enlist Steve as their protégé, the two former friends find themselves squaring off against one another, with the fate of vampires everywhere hanging in the balance.
In the process of investigating the source material online (mostly to find the correct spelling for "Vampaneze"), I read a number of synopses of books in the Cirque du Freak series, and none of them made any kind of sense either as a single-serving tale or an overarching saga. This, however, explains why the movie is comprised primarily of narrative gibberish, weird, pointless digressions and exposition for which the term ham-fisted was invented.
For example, the opening scenes offer a brief portrait of Darren's life as a normal teenager, showing how he gets along easily with almost everyone and is generally an average, ordinary teen. But in the moments before he and Steve enter the Cirque du Freak, the film feels it oddly necessary to inform us that Darren harbors an unhealthy interest in spiders and that Steve is outright obsessed with vampires.
Needless to say, this information becomes important to both of their characters fairly quickly, but isn't there a better way this could have been explained or communicated to the audience? If the number-one rule of moviemaking is "show, don't tell," then director Paul Weitz and especially screenwriter Brian Helgeland (whom I typically worship) have failed to do their job correctly.
Further, Darren's discovery of the freak-filled underworld is one that, admittedly, only a popular, problem-free kid could find as shocking as he seems to, but that doesn't give the film license to ladle on a heavy-handed metaphor about tolerance. Not only is this kid painfully naïve, but he's surprisingly indifferent to obvious potential danger, first fleeing directly into the dressing room of a guy he knows is a vampire (who warned him, no less), and then running headlong into a number of situations where he could be seriously injured or killed, even as a vampire.
But then again, this is the kind of film that relies on characters not knowing important pieces of information, and in most cases actively not wanting to know them. The fundamental conflict between Darren and Steve develops only because Darren never explains to his buddy that (a) he never wanted to be a vampire and (b) he became one only in order to save Steve's life; rather, Steve's hate festers superficially throughout the movie until the two boys are literally at each other's throats, eventually insisting they hate one another without any real reason to do so except that the story structure demands it.
Paul Weitz, who directed American Dreamz and In Good Company after co-helming American Pie and About A Boy with his brother Chris, assembles the film in such an unwieldy way that Cirque du Freak never gains any dramatic momentum or emotional weight. An early "action" scene in which Steve tries to dispatch an errant spider is proficiently handled from a technical standpoint, but it's boring and feels out of place until you realize that it will figure heavily into an upcoming plot point; later, there's an arbitrary flashback that occurs for absolutely no discernible reason, except to rearrange a couple of scenes that would play just as well in chronological order.
Finally, Crepsley's encampment of freaks is so underwhelmingly documented that you're almost inclined to forget that there's anything unusual about its denizens. Which would be okay if the film were about the mundane normalcy of even the seemingly weirdest physical and personal attributes, except that apparently the whole point of Darren's introduction to that world is to shake him out of the safe complacency of a so-called "normal" life.
Again, however, I come back to the idea that vampirism just doesn't mean anything in the film, except maybe immediate commercial viability. Mind you, the long and expansive history of vampire stories doesn't necessarily need another entry point to prove interesting to audiences, but cartoonish coming-of-age stories definitely do, and the underlying meaning of having Darren become superhuman or undead or dependent on drinking blood (or whatever aspect appealed to the filmmakers) could have added an emotional value to the story that, as it stands, the film simply doesn't have.
Ultimately, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant feels more like a tapped vein than a bloody fountain of creativity, which is why, rather than continuing the creatures' rich history, or even creating a new legacy for lovers of vampire stories, it passes on a less appealing idea—namely, that if in the first installment of a supposed series even the characters themselves don't want to know what comes next, we definitely won't either.