Vampires are so hot right now. From Twilight to True Blood to countless cinematic variations on the blood-sucking theme, it seems not a week goes by without another soulful, sexy and oh-so-serious member of the undead appearing to glam up our screens. Even Oscar-winning writer Diablo “Juno” Cody is getting in on the act, with her forthcoming teen-horror Jennifer’s Body, starring the inescapable Megan Fox as a pointy-toothed temptress. And now here’s Cirque du Freak, from American Pie director Paul Weitz, adapted from yet another bestselling teen fiction series, adding yet another vampire to the pile.
But Crepsley, ringmaster of the titular Cirque, is markedly different to the aforementioned hot young things: firstly, he’s played by John C. Reilly, more famous for great character acting than chiselled abs, and secondly, he’s really quite funny. When he deadpans to Darren, the teenager at the centre of this story, that being a vampire is “deeply depressing”, there’s a definite sense of Twilight’s bubble of angst being gleefully burst. “Wanna become a vampire?” he continues, “it’s a lonely life, but there’s lots of it”. Reilly, looking like an undead Bob Dylan with his explosive hairstyle and rock-star wardrobe, has great fun with this character, and Cirque du Freak is very entertaining whenever he’s onscreen.
Unfortunately, as the title suggests, this story is not actually about Crepsley, but rather focuses on Darren, the lethargic teen who, through various interminable plot contrivances, becomes a half-vampire so he can be Crespley’s assistant. Darren is played by Chris Massoglia, who put me in mind of a teenage Zach Braff; he exudes none of Braff’s wit and all of his whiney irritability. This would be fine if Cirque du Freak placed Darren in an exciting adventure, but after initially setting up his transformation and introducing a host of interesting support characters, the film becomes very unclear about where it is going or why we should be interested.
Weitz, who did such a great job of transferring Nick Hornby's About A Boy to the screen, here fails to convey the overarching narrative of the Cirque du Freak books. An early brief appearance from Willem Dafoe as an old friend of Reilly’s allows for some suggestion of a great battle between two warring races of vampires, but it’s not clear what bearing this is supposed to have on the ensuing story, or where Darren fits in this bigger picture.
But despite not offering a clear storyline for an audience to hold on to, Weitz handles his cast well and packs in a lot of funny jokes, so Cirque du Freak just about gets by. As well as the excellent Reilly, Patrick Fugit is funny as the guitar-playing Snake Boy, and Salma Hayek is disturbingly attractive as a bearded lady. Weitz and his co-writer Brian Helgeland also deserve commendation for pushing the dialogue about as far into the realms of black comedy as is possible while still aiming primarily at a young audience.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is out now. This review first appeared on futuremovies.co.uk.