It looks like I’m getting into a nasty habit of giving poor reviews to movies inspired by vampire books loved by my wife. Last year I clobbered "Twilight" with a D-. That earned me the ire of my then-fiancee, her best friend, and especially of my little sister.
I won’t come down quite as hard on "Cirque Du Freak," the film based on a somewhat less popular series of young-adult-targeted vampire novels. Though, that’s not out of any fear that the females in my life will drive a stake through my heart. If "Cirque du Freak" was as bad as "Twilight" I most certainly would expose it to the brightest of critical sunlight until it burnt to ash.
"Freak" keeps its head above water (it’s at C-level) principally for its visuals, actors, and the fun of its premise. Virtually everything else falls apart. Though, from its basic plot it’s not difficult to see why it would be such a popular series.
Set in your standard everytown, "Cirque du Freak" features a protagonist with whom many teens could likely connect. Darren (Chris Massoglia) lives a dull life and has overbearing parents with dull expectations - college, career, and family. He only finds excitement in his friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) who pushes him to cut class and vandalize.
When the mysterious Cirque du Freak, an elaborate circus/freakshow with bizarre performers, comes to town the two thrill-seekers make a point to attend. Once there the Cirque dazzles the adolescents. The group is led by the Tall Man (Ken Watanabe) and features a bearded lady (Salma Hayek,) a lizard boy (Patrick Fugit,) a woman who can regrow limbs (Jane Krakowski,) and a man with exposed ribs (Orlando Jones.) My favorite, though, was the woman with giant teeth -- because she was played by Kristen Schaal of the endlessly-delightful HBO comedy "Flight of the Conchords."
Darren and Steve are most intrigued, though, by a Vaudevillian performer named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) with a giant spider. The two teens quickly suspect that eccentric entertainer is actually a famous vampire.
When Darren chooses to "borrow" Crepsley’s spider it launches a series of events which will eventually lead to him joining the Cirque du Freak and becoming the vampire’s assistant of the title.
Darren soon finds himself drawn into an inter-blood-drinker feud. It’s vampires (those who drink blood) versus the Vampaneze (those who drink blood and kill people.) And Darren and Steve’s friendship is truly put to the test by it.
"Cirque du Freak" is the first film I’ve watched in a long time which actually seemed poorly made at a technical level. Scenes jumped awkwardly from one to another. Within individual scenes the editing had a clunky feel to it.
When I notice this stuff and complain about it then you know that the film is failing in other far more important ways. If a film casts its spell then one is likely not to notice technical limitations. But when it bores you then all of a sudden the mechanics of the film come to the foreground.
Plot-wise "Cirque Du Freak" fails to adapt all that well. I imagine the plots of the individual books work well enough but in trying to cram the events of the first three novels into one feature the filmmakers lose the original work’s three act structure. Thus the film is without focus, wandering around almost aimlessly.
The film also has the feeling of a made-for-TV movie. None of the dialogue is believable. Much of the acting is over the top. And all of the characters feel ripped from a parallel universe. It all feels like a silly, sentimental, Hallmark movie except with freaks and vampires.
The film’s only components that actually function are the concept and the actors. The freak show simply is not used in cinema enough. And the combination of freaks and a vampire narrative is inspired.
Reilly is always a delight. And while "Cirque Du Freak" is hardly his shining moment, he makes a rather mundane character lively and fun. In fact he’s one of the film’s saving lights. Without his presence I’d probably have given the picture a D. The bevy of supporting actors who bring the various freaks to life also brighten the film. It’s a shame we did not get more of them.
It appears that between "Cirque du Freak" and "Twilight" it’s time for YA authors of vampire fiction who long for quality adaptations of their work to be especially careful when Hollywood comes knocking with seductive offers. They will suck the lifeblood out of books that you devoted years to writing.