Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Cirque-du-Freak-The-Vampire-s-Assistant (2009)Despite assembling a number of very talented performers and production people, CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT is almost a study in how not to launch a successful film franchise.  Based on the first three books in Darren Shan’s young adult vampire series, Paul Weitz’s film adaptation is a promising stew that never quite blends.
At the heart of the problem is the main character: Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a nice guy who is fascinated by spiders, gets good grades, and tries to please his parents; however, he is a bland cipher characterized more by who he is not than by who he is.  His best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is the typical parent’s nightmare image of a bad influence: Steve likes to torture small animals, pull cruel pranks, and wants to become a vampire.  He persuades Darren to sneak out of his house to attend a live freak show in town.
There they encounter Madame Truska the Bearded Woman (Salma Hayek), the disfigured Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), the mysterious Mr. Tall (Ken Wanatebe), and other colorful characters. The ringleader is Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a flame-haired fellow who is secretly a vampire. Steve persuades the arachnid-obsessed Darren to steal Larten’s colorful spider, and later tries to persuade Crepsley to turn him into the undead, only to be rejected as unsuitable.
Through a convoluted series of events, Darren winds up agreeing to become a half-vampire in an effort to save his friend, the vampire’s assistant of the title (who can assist Crepsley because he can go about in daylight). Conversely, Steve is recruited by the Vampaneze, a sect of evil vampires who delight in partaking of human blood, unlike the more humane style of vampire represented by Crepsley. (It does seem like a permanently engraved trope of the genre these days is to pit “good” vampires against “evil” ones).
Despite the talented actors, the characters never get developed beyond the most superficial levels, even when Darren has to abandon his family to live with the Cirque, where he meets a roommate Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit) and encounters the shy but sassy Monkey Girl (Jessica Carlson).  SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE’s Willem Defoe does a delightful turn as a Vincent Price-like vampire, but it proves too little, too late. Reilly, as the seemingly indifferent mentor vampire, provides the most interesting performance, but he cannot overcome the jumble the film has become.
Apparently, Brian Hegeland’s original script was considered too dark, so director Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) attempted to lighten the project and create a sort of highlights assembly.  What emerges is a major case of tonal schizophrenia, as CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT shifts between light and dark, serious and fanciful, from violence to drama to comedy. Thank to some very choppy editing and unengaging protagonists, viewer ennui quickly outpaces the splendid production design and cinematography. In the end, the film seems to be setting up a series that its own lackluster performance guarantees we will never see.

Darren Shan (Chris Masspglia) and vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in the frightening tale of a boy who is pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night. Credit: David Lee
Darren Shan (Chris Masspglia) and vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in the frightening tale of a boy who is pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night. Credit: David Lee


CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT (2009). Universal release of a Donners Co./Depth of Field production in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Weitz, Ewan Leslie. Executive producers, Courtney Pledger, Sarah Radclyffe, Andrew Miano, Dan Kolsrud, Kerry Kohansky, Rodney Liber. Co-producer, John Swallow. Directed by Paul Weitz. Screenplay, Weitz, Brian Helgeland, based on the “Cirque du Freak” series of books by Darren Shan.
Larten Crepsley – John C. Reilly
Mr. Tall – Ken Watanabe
Steve – Josh Hutcherson
Darren Shan – Chris Massoglia
Murlaugh – Ray Stevenson
Evra the Snake Boy – Patrick Fugit
Gavner Purl – Willem Dafoe
Madame Truska – Salma Hayek

From Dusk Till Dawn: Salma Hayek dances to "After Dark"

Since this weekend is focused on the horror and fantasy films of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, including the latter’s 1996 film FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (scripted by Quentin Tarantino), we thought we should share this video clip of Salma Hayek as the vampire queen Santanico Pandemonium, dancing to the uber-cool song “After Dark.” This memorable sequence is one of the highlights of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN; the hypnotic cadence, moody melody, intriguing lyrics from  Tito and Tarantula’s performance add immeasurably to the obviously stunning spectacle of Hayek’s snake dance. Too bad all this set up only leads to Hayek’s character being summarily dispatched in the movie!

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Retrospective Horror Movie Review

It’s not easy being God – just ask Eric Clapton. Quentin Tarantino has achieved iconic status, to the point that it was widely assumed his involvement in this crime-horror hybrid would guarantee blockbuster success. What people forget, however, is that Tarantino has only one blockbuster to his credit (PULP FICTION). Not that artistic achievement should be judged by box office, but it’s not a bad idea ot remember that his name, on its own, is not yet a guaranteed franchise. If we needed any proof of this, the disappointing FROM DUSK TILL DAWN certainly provides it.
Tarantino tries to rework the structural ploy from the Bruce Willis section of PULP, in which a story going in one direction takes an abrupt and outrageous turn; unfortunately, that gambit can’t work in a feature film, when all the trailers and pre-release interviews have told us that this crime melodrama will end up in a lair full of vampires.
The result is that the set up takes too long, because we know what is going to happen. In fact, the killer on the road sequences end up resembling nothing so much as the most over-extended first act in screen history.

Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium
Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium

What accounts for this miscalculation? One can only assume that it ws to provide more screen time for Quentin Tarantino in his co-starring role. Actually, he acquits himself well enough by mostly standing in the shadow of George Clooney, who proves himself an excellent leading man. Still, one cannot help wishing that some of that screen time had been devoted to more deserving characters who show up later, such as Hayek’s vampire dancer Santanico Pandemonium, who ends up being destroyed far too soon (an unbelievable miscalculation on the part of Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez).
When we finally get to the vampire striptease club south of the Mexican border, the film immediately jumps to life: it is as if Robert Rodriguez, back on home turf, has finally got a handle on the film. When the first melee occurs, and the characters we have been following find themselves thrust together and fighting for survival with the help of  two complete strangers (ably played by Fred Williamson and Tom Savini, the latter known for his makeup work on DAWN OF THE DEAD), the film briefly realizes some of its full potential.
Alas, no sooner is this new group drawing  together under adverse conditions, than Quentin Tarantino’s script begins dispatching characters left and right, rather than dramatizing the internal conflicts that must inevitably arise under such duress (a la NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13).
Quentin Tarantino is a real movie-movie talent; that is, much of his cleverness comes from knowing films and filmic expectations and bending them to suit his purpose or re-using familiar material with a win of recognition toward the audience. thus, the appearance of Savini and Williamson is an amusing nod to the cult audience, not because of the characters but because we recognize the actors and associate them with their past accomplishments.
At other times, Tarantino’s script is a bit too clever, setting up interesting ideas that never pay off. For instance, the Gecko brothers are escaping to a lace in Mexico called El Rey – which just happens to be the name of the enigmatic ruler of a south-of-the-border haven for escaped criminals in Jim Thompson novel The Getaway.In the final chapter, (which was omitted from both film adaptations), the escaped robbers find themselves in a criminal sanctuary that is little better than Hell on Earth (“You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you have died…and have waked up in Hell.”) One might, therefore, expect the sanctuary in DUSK TO be similarly revealed as no safe haven at all and that Seth Gecko, through his confrontation with tangible evil in the Titty Twister Bar, would change his ways, choose not to go to El Rey, and thus avoid a horrible fate. Instead, the idea is abandoned. As with everything else in the film, Quentin Tarantino seems almost frantic to throw away potentially good material in favor of impaling a few more hearts and exploding a few more bodies.
Tarantino, Hayek, Clooney
Tarantino, Hayek, Clooney

Sitting in the director’s chair, Robert Rodriguez does an adequate job of filming the gobs of gore, but for some reason the action lacks the balletic intensity of DESPERADO – the stylistic verb that invites sympathetic viewers to forgive the story deficiencies. and simply surrender to the excitement of the on-screen carnage.
Whereas one might reasonably have expected that the combo of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would yield a critical mass of nuclear proportions, instead of an atomic fireball’s worth of entertainment, we get a long fuse, quite a bit of fizzle, and a rather minor blast. It is a shame to see so much good talent giving such low-yield results.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Written by Quentin Tarantino. Cast: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek, John Saxon.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Biodrowski. This review originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 27, Number 10).

The Faculty (1998) – Retrospective Horror Movie Review

The Kevin Williamson formula (rewrite familiar horror scenarios and have the characters note the familiarity) has gotten to be a bore, and in this case it makes no sense. In a story patterned after INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (though it stumbles closer to INVADERS FROM MARS), the characters surmise that films like MIB and ID4 were made by aliens as a form of disinformation to fool us from recognizing a real invasion; yet the characters end up using science-fiction films as a foolproof blueprint to defeat the aliens!
Still, the film is more interesting than the overrated SCREAM-fests. The high school setting, with the faculty gradually being taken over, actually works, because conformity and peer pressure are such a big part of the characters’ lives. The plot generates empathy and suspense as its outcast students band together to fight off the alien menace; their growing paranoia is nicely handled, and the litmus test (each proves he or she is still human by snorting caffeine) is a hoot. Most interesting is the idea that the people who have been snatched are actually improved by their condition: the hard-ass coach turns into an understanding guy; the mousy teacher (Janssen in a stunning piece of Jekyll-Hyde work) turns into a self-confident vamp.
Unfortunately, the potential in this idea is never realized, because the filmmakers do not trust it to hold our interest; instead, they pander to their target teen audience with copious computer effects, plus gratuitous and gory stalk-and-slash scenes. Question: Why does the football coach (Patrick) drive a pencil into the hand of the principal (Neuwirth), when the aliens want to snatch bodies, not slash them? Answer: Because the film needed a shocking image in opening reel! It is hard to feel frightened by the temptation of the alien’s promise of blissful conformity when we see evil pod people slashing their victims to death.
Director Rodriguez is as much to blame for this: a fine action specialist, he has the most fun when all hell breaks loose; a long, slow, suspenseful buildup just is not what interests him. Still, he keeps things lively, even when they get silly: the film ends with a romantic kiss between the geek and the head cheerleader (easily the most unbelievable image in the movie – far more so than the squid-shaped true form of the aliens), followed by a closing montage of the cast showing all the pod people back to normal – even those who were shot, decapitated, and stabbed in they eye!
THE FACULTY(Dimension Films, 1998). Director: Robert Rodriguez. Writer: Kevin Williamson. 101 mins. R. Cast: Elijah Wood, Laura Harris, Robert Patrick, Bebe Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek.

Cirque du Freak in 2009

Universal Studios lists this title among their releases for 2009, but no specific date has been set as of yet. Check out this excerpt from the press kit for more information:

Cirque Du Freak tells the frightening tale of a boy who unknowingly breaks a 200-year-old truce between two warring factions of vampires. Pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night, one teen will vanish from the safety of a boring existence and fulfill his destiny in a place drawn from nightmares.
14-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia) was like most kids in his suburban neighborhood. He hung out with his best friend, got decent grades and usually stayed out of trouble. But when he and his buddy stumble upon a traveling freak show, things begin to change inside Darren. That’s the exact moment when a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) turns him into something, well, bloodthirsty.
Newly undead, he joins the Cirque Du Freak, a touring sideshow filled with monstrous creatures from a snakeboy and a wolfman to a bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and a gigantic barker (Ken Watanabe). As Darren flexes his newfound powers in this dark world, he becomes a treasured pawn between the vampires and their deadlier counterparts. And while trying to survive, one boy will struggle to keep their brewing war from devouring what’s left of his humanity.

  • Cast: John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, Patrick Fugit, Ray Stevenson, Michael Cerveris, Frankie Faison, Jane Krakowski, Jones, Kristen Schaal and Salma Hayek
  • Directed by: Paul Weitz
  • Writers: Brian Helgeland, Paul Weitz
  • Based on the Book Series by: Darren Shan
  • Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Weitz, Ewan Leslie
  • Executive Producers: Dan Kolsrud, Andrew Miano, Kerry Kohansky, Sarah Radyclyffe, Courtney Pledger


Dogma (1999) – DVD Review

This satirical religious fantasy generated quite a bit of controversy on the festival circuit. Whether or not that was intentional on the part of writer-director Kevin Smith (probably not), it gained attention and helped the film reach a wider audience than the cult of fans who knew Smith from his previous films (CLERKS, MALLRATS). The interesting thing about the controversy is how groundless it is. There is a certain farcical quality to Smith’s handling of the material, but there is nothing blasphemous. Smith reserves his most scathing satire for human institutions; nothing is said to question the glory of the Divine. The true target of the film is not religion but religious dogma, and while he skewers narrow-minded belief, he evinces a complete, almost conservative religious faith of his own.
A pair of angels who have fallen from God’s grace, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), are looking a way back into heaven. They get their chance when Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) offers a plenary indulgence to increase attendance in his church. Traveling to take advantage of this indulgence, which will wipe their souls clean, the angels make some diversions to visit their wrath on human sinners. What they do not realize is that they are playing into the hands of the Devil, who wants them to succeed because undermining God’s plan will unravel the fabric of all creation. A counter-force appears in the form of the Voice of God (Alan Rickman), who enlists the aid of a lapsed Catholic (Linda Fiorentino). Along the way, she is joined by the familiar Jay and Silent Bob characters, plus a thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock), who was written out of the New Testament because he’s black.

Smith’s screenplay assumes that the basic tenants of Catholicism are true and binding, and plays around with the kind of logical contradictions that arise when trying to answer the question of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Smith borrows mythological elements from other belief systems: Loki is a Trickster character from Norse mythology, known to fans of Wagner’s “Ring” operas. Salma Hayek plays a muse who inspired the Bible and nineteen of the top twenty grossing films of all time (Home Alone only made it courtesy of a deal with the Devil).  Bartleby comes not from mythology but fiction: the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville (although Smith’s point, if he has one, is elusive).
Smith combines these elements into a hilarious spoof that buttresses rather than undermines faith. When Loki and Bartleby decimate a corporate behemoth named Mooby (think what would happen if MacDonald’s and Disneyland mated), there is a mixture of suspense and nervous laughter, but the film seems to endorse Loki’s assertion that the company mascot is a false idol, suggesting that the punishment he meets out (for personal as well as corporate sins) is justified.
This is not the work of a true iconoclast. Having bashed capitalism and dogma, Smith offers hallelujahs of faith. Unfortunately, it is easier to tear something down than to build it up, and Smith stumbles when he tries to inspire, offering only vague platitudes: flexible ideas are better than belief, which is entrenched; the fact of faith is more important than its specific nature; etc.
As a piece of film-making, DOGMA is is not a widescreen extravaganza, nor is it particularly innovative. Smith’s strength is as a writer; in the director’s chair, he handles the actors well and captures their performances on camera, but his visual style is more servicabel than visionary (as he himself is prone to admit). He does a competent job with dialogue scenes, but he sometimes comes up short with the big visual moment, such as the the demonic skateboarders, who fail to intimidate as much as they should. At least he has the good judgment to delete scenes that do not work so well (such as the last-reel fight between Silent Bob and the Golgotham, seen as a bonus feature on disc).
G.K. Chesterton (who wrote the entertaining Father Brown mysteries) advanced the idea that satire implies reverence, because there could be no satire unless there was an accepted standard that had not been met; the failure, not the standard, was the true target. Whether one accepts Chesterton’s assertion as universally true, it seems to hold in the case of Dogma.


The original Single Disc DVD ReleaseOn DVD, DOGMA was originally released in a single-disc presentation, with a fullscreen transfer on one side and a letterboxed version on the other. In this case, the letterbox version actually shows less picture information, merely cropping off the top and bottom of the frame. There was a Dolby 5.1 English soundtrack, a French language track, plus English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The minimal bonus features included a trailer and talent files. The release of this version seems to have been a marketing ploy to double up revenues from fans; the two-disc special edition that arrived a year later featured an audio commentary that had clearly been recorded the previous year, in time for the first DVD release.
The Special Edition contains an eight-page booklet, titled “Light of the World,” which includes an essay by Kevin Smith on the making of the film, plus some advertising art spoofs seen in the movie, and a list of chapter stops.
Disc One of the Special Edition announces itself with some flashy interactive menues that begin by fast-forwarding through the Bible. On the main menu (backed by a heavenly synth choir), the film’s Buddy Jesus figure offers you options to “Play Movie” or “Don’t Play Movie.” If you don’t make a selection quickly enough, one of the thumbnail buttons starts up automatically, and “Mrs. Harriet Wise” offers her opinion on how offensive and sick the film is. Harriet shows up elsewhere, asking “Sinner, how can you live with yourself?” when you opt to actually play the movie.
The audio set-up offers English 2-channel Dolby Surround sound and English 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus French and Spanish language tracks. There are options for English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There are two audio commentaries: “Cast and Crew” and “Technical.”
The Cast and Crew Commentaryfeatures Kevin Smith, Ben Afleck, and others in a funny round table, discussing the film and the controversy surrounding it, plus rumors surrounding it. For example, in response to the suggestion made by some critics that the angels Bartleby and Loki intentionally satirize rumors that Afleck and Damon are a couple, Smith insists that the characters were written long before the actors were cast. We also learn that the language Afleck spits out while being tossed off the train by Silent Bob (Smith) is German, which translates as “I’ll get you for this, Silent Bob.” (Why German? Affleck thought the angels’ native language was Germanic and that they would lapse into it in a crisis.) This commentary also includes a “Video Hijinks” option, which allows you to access additional clips whenever the Buddy Christ figure appears on the screen.
The Technical Commentary, as the name suggests, eschews the jokes in favor of providing nitty-gritty details about the making of the film. For example, the Buddy Christ statue was sculpted from an existing statue of an apostle, with the head cut off and replaced.
Disc Two contains numerous bonus features: Deleted Scenes, Storyboards, Outtakes, Trailer, Saints and Sinners (talent bios of cast and crew), etc.
Deleted Scenes include:

  • Jay Finds Solace in Christ
  • Cardinal Glick speaks a lot
  • Bethany’s Boo-Hoo
  • Azrael house sits
  • Bartleby & Loki make fun of Wisconsin
  • Azrael’s moment of doubt, and even more Mooby fast-food fun!
  • The now legendary “Fat Albert” sequence in which Jay and Silent Bob find solace in Christ
  • Loki’s slaughter, Serendipity’s entire sotry, and the Golgothan is called “Stinky.”
  • Azrael’s horns in the toy store
  • Rufus tells Bethany about the wonder of Christ
  • Loki’s take on “Star Wars,” Bartleby and Bethany flirt.
  • The four-hour version of the campfire scene
  • Our heroes spend a few extra minutes with Cardinal Glick
  • The Grand Guignol Azrael sequence that reveal the nature of Hell and gives us a glimpse into the pit…sort of
  • The fate of Cardinal Glick
  • Poop Floats: The return of the Golgothan

Some of the scenes feature explanatory introductions by Smith (who tells us the last one is so bad that it could possibly destroy his career). Most of them are worth seeing, but as you can tell from their sheer number (their running time is approximately 100 minutes), they had to be deleted just to get the running time down to a manageable length.
Storyboardsfeatures three sequences, which seem to have been drawn on yellow-lined paper: Mooby, Triplet Attack, and No Man Attack. Only of interest to people interested in the nuts-and-bolts of film-making.
Outtakes include some at most mildly amusing bits and pieces of actors flubbing their lines and otherwise screwing up (i.e., hitting their heads on the boom microphone).
Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Pot Stashhas the two characters plugging the eponymous online store where you can purchase merchandise from the movie. Basically, a commercial.


Sony Pictures’ Blu-ray Disc (released on March 11, 2008) squeezes the bonus features from the Special Edition DVD onto a single disc with improved sound and video quality. Although DOGMA, like most Kevin Smith films, emphasizes dialogue, it also has plenty of special effects and several big visual moments, including a few flashes of violence, making it a worthwhile film to experience in a high-def version.
DOGMA. (Lion’s Gate, November 1999). Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Produced by Scott Mosier. Music by Howard Shore. Rated R. 128 mins. Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, with Alanis Morisette and Bud Cort.

Hayek will be a "Freak"

Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium in FROM DUSK TILL DAWNActress Salma Hayek (whose previous genre credits include FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, THE FACULTY, and WILD, WILD WEST) has signed to appear alongside John C. Reilly in a “horror drama” called CIRQUE DU FREAK. Based on a series of children’s books, the film will begin shooting next month, with Paul Weitz directing; Lauren Shuler Donner will co-produce with Weitz.
According to Variety:

Reilly will play a vampire who drafts a 14-year-old to serve as his assistant. The youth is turned into a half-vampire and becomes the catalyst in a battle between vampires and the rival Vampanese. Hayek will play MadameTruska, the bearded lady.