Just as it would be weird to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” in any month but December, I can’t imagine enjoying “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” anytime but now, in October, when the color of the leaves and the crispness of the air put me the mood for some creepy-fun Halloweenism. I might be more concerned about the film’s shortcomings (which are modest anyway) if it didn’t remind me so much of those bowl-of-cold-spaghetti-equals-brains “haunted houses” we used to do when I was a kid, and I can’t imagine it will have a long life in theaters. But for right now? Late October? It’s just what the mad doctor ordered.
Based on Darren Shan’s series of young-adult novels and targeted more or less at that same audience, the film concerns an adolescent boy named after the author (played by Chris Massoglia), and his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Darren is “Mr. Perfect,” a good student, obedient to his loving parents, kind to his little sister, and obsessed with spiders. Steve is a troublemaker and a bad influence, and has a thing for vampires.
Both of their hobbies come into play at “Cirque du Freak,” a sideshow for which the boys find a flier under mysterious circumstances. Under the direction of ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), the boys and the rest of the audience — all adults, mostly shifty-looking men — enjoy performances by a woman who sprouts facial hair when excited (Salma Hayek), a woman whose limbs can regenerate themselves (Jane Krakowski), a man with two stomachs (Frankie Faison), a man with no gut at all (Orlando Jones), and various other freaks. The headliner, though, is Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), who plays a pipe to charm a huge, colorful, deadly spider called Octa. Steve recognizes Crepsley from one of his vampire books — the guy’s a bloodsucker.
Through plot points I’ll leave you to discover, the boys learn something of Crepsley’s history. As is often the case with these things, there is an age-old feud between two groups. On the one hand are the vampires, including Crepsley and his old buddy Gavner (Willem Dafoe), who suck human blood to live but don’t kill the victims (or vampirize them, either). These would be the “good” guys. On the other hand are the vampaneze, who favor the old-fashioned slaughter-your-victims method and general havoc-wreaking and are represented by the violent Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). The vampaneze and the vampires have been at peace with each other for a while, but now a supposedly neutral party named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), whose name is ironic, has an interest in riling them up — and Darren and Steve somehow fit in with his plans.
The mythology is a little murky; presumably the 12 books in the series explain it a little better, and so might future films, if there are sequels. I was never clear on the theater where Cirque du Freak is held, either. At first I thought it was a traveling show, in that theater for one night only, but later the film’s action returns to the same venue, suggesting it’s the Cirque’s home theater. But the Cirque’s headquarters are a camp out in the woods somewhere, and it’s implied that this is far from Darren and Steve’s hometown. It doesn’t matter a whole lot, but come on. Explain yourself!
What I do know is that the circus freaks are great fun to watch, especially when Darren joins them as Crepsley’s assistant (that’s no spoiler; it’s in the title) and lives with them at their camp. The film has a lot of laughs with the day-to-day realities of being a sideshow performer or a vampire. You’re not onstage 24 hours a day, after all. Someone has to clean out the wolfman’s cage.
Some of the acting between the two central teenagers is clunky at times, but it’s more than balanced out by John C. Reilly’s turn as Crepsley. If you can be both goofy and menacing at the same time, Reilly does it. He comes across as a dorky guy trying to be cool, a sap who became a vampire and thus inherited an obligation to be suave but never quite got the hang of it. The director, Paul Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale”), keeps the tone just dark enough to be effective without being too scary, and always funny but not cartoonish. Universal Pictures was originally going to open it in January. What a mistake that would have been! It has Halloween written all over it.
B- (1 hr., 48 min.; )