The UK has a phrase for high-impact but not terribly deep stories that appeal especially to thrill-seeking children: "ripping yarns." Irish author Darren Shan (a.k.a. Darren O'Shaughnessy) has written at least twelve of them in his series The Saga of Darren Shan. Mythologizing himself as an apprentice vampire, Shan whipped up a world of warring bloodsuckers and peaceful freaks. Now the first trilogy of books becomes a ripping yarn for the big screen in Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.
Cirque du Freak gets a sort of Gothic pop treatment from writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company), who has adapted the first three novels into an imaginative, fast-paced fantasy romp that's hardly run of the mill (Brian Helgeland gets co-screenwriter credit). Newcomer Chris Massoglia stars as Darren Shan, a preppy teen who blends into his high-school crowd by making good grades and obeying his parents. His best friend, however, is the archetypal "bad influence": Steve (Josh Hutcherson) encourages Darren to cut class and generally stray from what Darren's dad calls "the path to a happy, productive life...college, job, family."
It's a canny set-up to another wish-fulfillment adventure rescuing a teen protagonist (and, by, extension, the audience) from a bland world of studies, chores, and the sinking feeling that life sucks and then you die. One day, "Destiny" invites Darren and Steve to a one-night-only performance by the traveling troupe Cirque du Freak. In the film's wittiest moment, the boys face towering, big-browed ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe) at the threshold of an old vaudeville theater. "Are you twenty-one?" he asks. "Say yes." To a young generation familiar with illicit web surfing, the come-on will be an "it's funny because it's true" moment.
As edited, the performance is a frenzied fever dream of freakishness, introducing snake boy Evra Von (Patrick Fugit), the regenerative Corma Limbs (Jane Krakowski), and psychic bearded lady Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), among others. But none makes a greater impression on the spider-loving Darren and the vampire-obsessed Steve than Mr. Crepsley (a droll John C. Reilly). Steve immediately recognizes Crepsley as a legendary vampire, while Darren goes gaga for Crepsley's trained-spider act. A series of mishaps and a life-or-death ultimatum leads to a surprising outcome: "goody two-shoes" Darren agrees to become a "half-vampire" while eager "bad boy" Steve gets left out in the cold.
As the man said, "This isn?'t over," and indeed The Vampire's Assistant often gives the impression that it has an infinite number of shoes to drop. Since the film is positioned as the hopeful first chapter in a saga, closure is not a priority, especially in the area of a desperately threatened two-hundred-year-old truce between vampire factions. The path to war leads right up to the film’s ending, and it's hard to know if the film will make enough money to justify a sequel, so if you want to see the rest of the story, vote with your dollars. See the somewhat clunky but endearingly weird Cirque du Freak early and often.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]