With John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Michael Cerveris, Salma Hayek. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language. 108 minutes.
It’s a vampire story based on a popular YA (young adult) book series and it’s not the sequel to “Twilight.” For that alone, CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT deserves the gratitude of moviegoers. Instead of the empty world of the glittery vampires of “Twilight,” we get a bizarre new mythology that is at once comic and eerie, as two high school friends find themselves caught up on opposite sides of a supernatural battle.
Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a good kid who does well in school and makes his parents proud. His best friend is Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who cuts classes and urges Darren to break the rules. When they go to a forbidden showing of the dark sideshow “Cirque du Freak,” they encounter Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a vampire with a pet spider. Steve is fascinated by vampires and asks to be turned into one, but Larten rejects him. Darren is equally fascinated by spiders and steals (or “borrows”) Larten’s poisonous one, which subsequently bites Steve. Larten has the antidote, but for Darren to get it he must agree to become a “half-vampire” and Larten’s personal assistant.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the mysterious Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) is trying to provoke a war between the vampires and the “vamponese.” Larten, one of the old leaders of the vampires, argues that if they don’t kill but merely take what blood they need to stay alive, the townspeople won’t rise up after them with fire and pitchforks. The vamponese, on the other hand, are old school killers who refer to their prey as “bags of blood.”
This is not a deep dish vampire tale like the brilliant “Let The Right One In” (2008) which used the legend of the vampire to explore human reality. This is a PG-13 entertainment intended for teens (and not children) and adults who want to have some Halloweenish fun without sinking into the gore of “Saw XCVII” or some documentary on slaughterhouses. The script is witty in exploding Darren’s (and our) “knowledge” of vampires. There’s no turning into bats. No chomping on necks. And when Darren makes a cross to ward off Larten, the vampire laughs and says, “You have no idea how ridiculous you look.”
The film is engagingly cast, with some big talent in small roles. Willem Dafoe pops up as one of Larten’s allies, Salma Hayek, Frankie Faison and Orlando Jones are among the freaks, and Ken Watanabe is ringmaster Mr. Tall. While Massoglia is an engaging “everyboy,” it is Reilly and Cerveris who turn in the outstanding performances. Reilly was an odd choice for a vampire but he can be both comical and frightening without missing a beat. Cerveris, who was the hairless “Observer” last season on the TV series “Fringe,” is bloated up as Mr. Tiny into a charismatic and evil character, urging bloodshed while pretending to be neutral.
“The Vampire’s Assistant” is an entertaining and engaging entry in the vampire sweepstakes. If it’s not A positive, it’s certainly worth a B.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.