Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Paul Weitz

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Paul Weitz
In an interesting twist of Hollywood fate, Chris and Paul Weitz have entered the final stretch of 2009 each in control of a major vampire franchise built from the pages of popular young adult fiction.

From one half of the brotherly team who brought us American Pie and About A Boy we get the second part of the pouty vomitorium "tweenlight saga" New Moon. From the other, Cirque du Freak, with John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek, Patrick Fugit and Willem Dafoe. Which do you figure would be more fun for anyone not stuffing extra Kleenex in their training bra for the trip to the theatre?

The Vampire's Assistant feels like it's partly aimed at taking the piss out of its genre brethren and partly intended as an adventurous, if often clichéd, romp through a fantastic world of freaks. Darren Shan is goodie two-shoes to his best buddy Steve's shit disturber. The former completely obsessed by spiders and the latter, vampires. Both encounter the respective objects of their fixations after being tossed a mysterious flyer for a freak show.

It's a sludgy crawl to the laughs and action but by the time the boys reach the freak show it's mostly full speed ahead. After brief performances by the Snake Boy, the Bearded Lady, Ribs, Wolfman and Corma Limbs, Larten Crepsley takes the stage and John C. Reilly owns the rest of the film. A song, a dance and an incredibly rare poisonous spider later, Darren sneaks backstage in an uncharacteristic instance of defiance to indulge in arachnid napping.

Hiding in a closet, Darren witnesses an exchange between Steve and Crepsley where Steve begs to be made a vampire but is rejected on account of his "bad blood." The mysterious Mr. Tiny helps Darren escape with the spider and invites him to join his dark family. Darren declines and then foolishly brings the spider to school the next day, where it bites Steve, putting him in a coma. Seeking an antidote, Darren confesses to Crepsley and cuts a deal to become his half-vampire assistant in exchange for Steve's life.

There's a lot of ground to cover in the plot, with a burgeoning war between the peaceful vampires and the murderous "vampanese"; the destinies of two friends pushed apart by jealousy and circumstance; and the awakening of Darren's powers and resistance to loosing even a shred of his humanity.

Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson are capable leads, both playing it relatively straight against the crazy world they've been thrust into. Reilly shrugs off the string of dim-witted, pseudo-buffoons he's played recently, investing Crepsley with sharp cynicism and cold wit, proving once again that his versatility can elevate any picture.

While subject to some of its genre tropes, Cirque du Freak is a richly entertaining world worth returning to for the grand adventure this first instalment sets up. (Universal)