Tuesday, March 16, 2010


My friend Wendigo is pretty widely read in vampire fiction, but he was barely aware of Darren Shan's 12-book series of young-adult novels before he heard of Paul Weitz's movie adaption. He's only just forging into the young-adult realm (Twilight being the gateway), but Shan's books hadn't really caught his attention, most likely because they don't fit the Twilight archetype. Based on what we've now seen, the "Saga of Darren Shan" seems intended for a slightly younger and more male audience than Stephanie Meyer's books. So all Wendigo knew about The Vampire's Assistant was what he saw in the commercials. They made the film look like a vampire comedy, a subgenre that has produced little good, and that it had freaks in it. I traumatized my poor friend once with a Halloween showing of Tod Browning's Freaks (a double feature with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre!) so he was uneager to see more freaks on film.

On that point he needn't have worried. The freaks of Cirque du Freak are more like Marvel Comics mutants than "Nature's Mistakes." Most of them have abilities that border on super powers, one woman being able to dismember herself and instantly regrow her limbs, another being able to devour all substances, digest them in his two stomachs, and spit out finished custom goods. Selma Hayek plays a fortune teller who can grow a full beard instantaneously when entranced by dangerous visions of the future.

The nearest thing to an old-school freak is the impresario, Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), who has height and a sort of lopsided Metalunan forehead. The next nearest thing is "the wolfman," an endearingly mangy beast who partners in the dismemberment act and, if anything, looks more like a Baboon Man to me. He's played by a guy in a suit. I adored him at first sight.

As far as I was concerned, the guy in the suit nearly stole the movie.

But enough about freaks, except to note that one of them is Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), who performs with his trained spider Madame Octa and seems romantically linked with Hayek's oft-bearded lady. Steve, an alienated delinquent and vampire buff, recognizes Crepsley as a famous vampire he's read about in some modern illustrated edition of The Book of the Vampires. He's so alienated that he wants Crepsley to bite and turn him, but his "bad blood" disqualifies him. Instead, Crepsley turns Steve's friend Darren Shan (the author's name is a pseudonym) as a condition of saving Steve's life when Madame Octa bites him. For Darren (Chris Massoglia) this is a too-sudden escape from stifling family life and meaningless overachievement, as he must appear to die in order to take up his role as Crepsley's half-vampire assistant. Through him we meet more of the freaks, including a lovably dumb snake-boy who fancies himself a rock star and a comely monkey girl (it's all in the tail) who may be Darren's first romance if he isn't swept away in the swirling conflict between the vampires (Crepsley's kind) and the renegade vampaneze.

Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, above) and his partner, Madame Octa (below)

In Wendigo's eyes there's nothing uniquely original about the attributes of Darren Shan's vampires, though they make an interesting combination of familiar details. The most visually distinct thing about them is their super-hard fingernails, which they use for climbing and for slashing attacks. Larten Crepsley is a more interesting individual vampire. He's neither a beautiful creature nor a bat-faced monster. He ages (slowly) and bears scars that haven't healed. Personified by John C. Reilly, one of today's great character actors, he often looks like a clown in the right light, but is also sad, sometimes cynical, and definitely not the standard master vampire. Wendigo hasn't seen much of Reilly's work but is impressed by this performance. While Cirque du Freak is yet another modern movie theoretically focused on the quasi-Renfield vampire-wannabe character, the film's success really depends on Reilly, and he succeeds in making Crepsley a representative of a plausible fantasy world. He's as noble a vampire as we've seen these days, having invented techniques of non-lethal blood drinking that inspired most of his kind to swear off killing (it's more like mugging instead), but in fantasy terms he's more of a reluctant mentor figure, someone trying to remain aloof from the looming conflict hinted at throughout the film.

Religion won't shield Darren Shan from his destiny (above), but he wouldn't have a chance at hot monkey-love otherwise.

This movie, which apparently combines the first two books of Shan's "saga," has an unavoidable rite-of-passage quality. For the most part, the film doesn't come on too strong about it after some dodgy early scenes portraying Darren's parents as cartoons of bourgeois conformity. You can forget about the metaphors as you get into the slightly-Burtonesque fantasy or enjoy the slightly Raimi-esque goofy action. But the symbolism comes roaring back towards the climax, when Darren must finally overcome his reluctance to drink live blood in order to gain the strength to defeat his old friend Steve, who was finally turned by the vampaneze and is now a bad guy. It's his new friend the monkey girl who offers her blood (from the shoulder), and the symbolism of the moment is obvious yet not overstated. The target audience of early teenage boys might miss the meaning altogether, but Wendigo couldn't help but see this as the moment when Darren finally becomes a man. It makes for an interesting contrast with Twilight, which is all about delaying the big moment as long as possible, but that may be all about the different audiences for each series of books.

While Mr. Tall is tall, Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) is false advertising by comparison. What's his game? I guess you'll have to read the books, since the film leaves the answer to a sequel that will probably never be made.

The Vampire's Assistant is a textbook case of low expectations easily exceeded. We'd heard nothing but bad about it going in, but in Wendigo's opinion it's one of the more satisfying horror comedies of recent times, benefiting from a distinct quirkiness, and occasionally an endearing goofiness, that unfortunately satisfied none of the major target audiences for modern vampire movies. Weitz's movie fell between two stools, losing the female audience through its lack of romantic passion, and the male audience through its lack of cool or extreme violence. Reviewers probably resented having to learn yet another mythos, even though it isn't that hard this time. And from the bonus materials it looks like the film deviated from the novel in ways that may have left its most reliable target audience alienated. But Wendigo hasn't read the books yet, and judging the film on its own merits he found it quite entertaining and original. His philosophy of vampire cinema is "vive la difference!" and he thinks more people might enjoy this one if they set aside preconceived notions of what a vampire movie ought to be or should have in it. There's no gore, no killer chicks in leather, no heavy-breathing beauties, but lots of good films over time have done quite well without any of those things. This film is easily one of the most underrated films of last year. Though no classic, it's an enjoyable oddity for viewers with open minds.

This version of the trailer was uploaded to YouTube by darkmater101.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent review of a movie that came and went before I even thought about it much. I do enjoy John C. Reilly in just about anything, though, and your notes on his performance intrigue me. Also, I'm a sucker for a circus/freakshow movie, rites of passage that involve symbolic loss of virginity, and sexy monkey ladies, so I may be that elusive target audience you mentioned. ;)

I'll definitely have to check this one out.

Comment verification: "horse." That's right--just "horse." :P

Anonymous said...

Your right the movie alienates every one they should have followed the books plan and simple