The film Cirque du Freak is based on the first three books of a young adult series called The Saga of Darren Shan or alternately, Cirque du Freak. It is unfortunate that this film comes after several vampire movies and TV series because I am sure vampire fatigue will make some people dismiss it. That would be a mistake because Cirque du Freak isn’t annoyingly angsty and any love story is secondary to the plot. It is grittier, darker, and surprisingly fun.
I have not read any of the Cirque du Freak books, so I didn’t go see this movie with preconceived notions about what I thought I should see. I enjoyed The Vampire’s Assistant. It has lots of dark humor, seriously scary moments, and blessedly few cheesy ones (a graveyard pinball scene comes to mind). The casting is pretty much perfect except for Mr. Crepsley. He was supposedly converted into a vampire when he was 20 years old but the actor, John C. Reilly, is clearly in his forties. Weren’t vampires supposed to look the same as when they died? This may be explained in the books, but not in the film. Overlooking that detail, Reilly does a great job as Mr. Crepsley. The circus freaks were wonderfully done by several brilliant actors, and it is a pity we didn’t get to see more of them. The only freaks I thought looked truly fake were the CGI creatures that look like mini-druids.
Darren Shan, the titular vampire’s assistant, lives in a suburban neighborhood where people dress in pastel and khaki, and absolutely no freaks are allowed. He is a straight A student and all-around good kid. His best friend Steve continuously gets him in trouble, so Darren’s parents forbid him to hang out with Steve. Still, Darren rebels and continues to see him anyways. They go to a Cirque du Freak show recently come to town and that’s where the trouble begins. From suburban teens, they end up becoming enmeshed in a war between Vampires and the Vampaneze. The main difference between these two factions is that the Vampaneze feed off humans and kill them, while the Vampires don’t kill anyone they feed on. Darren and Steve become pawns of a Mr. Tiny, a character that at first reminded me of Fringe’s Observer, only this guy is truly evil and instead of just observing is an enthusiastic participant and instigator of the Vampire/Vampaneze war. (When I looked up the actor, Michael Cerveris, I discovered that hey, he was Fringe’s Observer with lots of prosthetic makeup. D’oh! I guess he’s been typecast.)
Salma Hayek plays the part of Madame Truska, the Bearded Lady, who gets visions that she can’t remember. Her character has a romantic relationship with Mr. Crepsley and besides providing him support and blurting out random visions (and showing off her cleavage) doesn’t have much to do. This is very disappointing for an actress of Salma’s caliber. I am hoping that she chose this role because of the strong potential for sequels and that the character of Madame Truska will become more important in future installments. Come to think of it, all the female characters could do with more independence and strength and not be there for the sole comfort of males, offering up blood (or body parts) for consumption. Since The Vampire’s Assistant is clearly set up for at least one sequel, I hope things change for all the ladies, including Madame Truska.