Review: Cirque du Freak
PLOT: Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) is a kid in a bland little town, with bland little friends. But when a flyer for an illegal freak show appears in front of Darren and his delinquent friend Steve (John Hutcherson), he begins a journey that makes him the assistant to a vampire, boyfriend to a girl with a monkey tail, and a pawn in a war between the pacifist Vampires and the Vampanese, who have no problem killing their victims. Based on the young adult novels by Darren Shan.
REVIEW:Last year I got a chance to visit the set of CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT in New Orleans, and before I went, I read the first three books. I was in love by page one. Here was an author who was aware that kids today were born after 1950. This book is dark. A kid fakes his own death, he's offered a body part as a snack, people get hurt. And that's where I think the film is at it's best. It never succumbed to the temptation to make anything a little less horrifying. I found myself wondering if the studio gave them any problems about some of the darker elements. There is a particular moment between Ribs (Orlando Jones) and Limbs (Jane Krakowski) that skeeved the hell out of me. Bravo Universal, for treating kids as something less than Dick and Jane. And parents, leave the little ones at home, or prepare yourself for a late night, post-scary dream visitor.
CIRQUE DU FREAK is also a pretty close book-to-film translation. There are changes, of course. There always are. The phallic-tailed (it appears when she's aroused) Monkey Girl, (Jessica Carlson) was added as a love interest for Darren. Hey, got to play to the TWILIGHT audience, right? (The movie poster is a dead ringer for NEW MOON's and these vampires don't have fangs either.) But it remains a fairly close approximation of the book in tone and form.
The performances are surprisingly low key for a kids' film. I have to admit, I was surprised by the casting of John C. Reilly as Crepsley. I love the man's work, but he was the last person I would have pictured as a red-haired vamp with magical spit. But he did a fantastic job. Unlike a lot of comedians who make shit loads of cash with broad comedy, Reilly knows how to hold back when he needs to. Massoglia did a nice job as Darren...eventually. In the first few scenes, I was having Hayden Christensen flashbacks, but once Darren enters the world of the freak show, he warmed up beautifully. (He also seemed to gain a few inches across the shoulders throughout filming.)
Willem Dafoe is disturbingly awesome as Crepsley's face-painted, spatz-wearing vampire buddy, Gavner Purl. He also looks weirdly like Steve Buscemi. And though my tastes don't go that way, Hayek, who plays Madame Truska, actually manages to look hot with a beard. Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit) was terribly under-utilized. He was my favorite in the books and it's not just because I have a pet python. Fugit was a riot in the teensy tiny bit of screen time they gave him, and I'm hoping there are more scenes with him on the DVD.
I hate to say this, but with all that goodness to work with, the film left me with a case of the blahs. It wasn't that the film wasn't exciting. It was. It wasn't that the actors weren't great. They were. It wasn't any feeling that my loyalty to the books was being betrayed. It wasn't. The problem here was with the editing. It felt like they spent a holiday weekend in the edit bay with a few cases of beer. Odd cuts, strange takes...when I was on set, we watched them film a fantastic battle scene between Reilly and Dafoe. Dafoe gave a completely different performance in each take, all of them brilliant. He and Reilly played off each other perfectly. It made me look forward to the end of the film...and what I saw was a completely lukewarm scene, no argument and an ending that couldn't resist throwing in an after-school special message. It felt like they ran out of time.
I saw all kinds of beautiful things on the set. Character houses designed around their personalities, cool set pieces...and very little of it actually made it into the finished product. Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe) was a minor presence. Jones and Krakowski's roles were nothing more than cameos. And the score was just plain amateur. My two year old niece could have written better music. Again, it seemed like they gave the guy a day to write it all. Bells tolling for a death, violins during sad scenes...it was almost condescending. It took me out of the film over and over again.
And that after-school special message I mentioned? It utterly destroyed every brave, dark moment they left in. It doesn't matter what you are. It matters who you are. Yeah, thanks. I got that from the rest of the film. And my grandmother. And the Disney Channel. This film had so many things going for it, and it squandered them all in post-production. Had this been edited and scored well, I would have given this an 8.5, but as it is...
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...