Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This movie is good.

That's the short version of what is going to be a long review, since I was a big fan of the books when I was younger. But starting with that is important, because this movie doesn't have a great reputation. Fans didn't like it because of its deviations from the book, critics didn't like it because of Chris Massoglia's performance as Darren and because it was "overstuffed", which is true. But when 16-year-old me saw this movie when it came out, I think I realized that it wasn't all that bad. Back then, I think I was afraid to think differently than most people, so It took me until now to realize that this movie is actually good.

Massoglia's not great, but he's fine in most scenes. He unfortunately doesn't deliver in the climactic scenes which are more intense, and that's a problem. But pretty much every other actor is good. There's a lot of random famous people that show up, but the person who matters the most is, of course, Mr. Crepsley, played by John C. Reilly. I thought that was a wonderful casting decision from the first time I heard about it. Book readers didn't like it because they wanted a handsome Crepsley like the one in the manga adaptation. And while that version might (not sure) be similar to the author's version of the character in some ways, I think Reilly's Crepsley is too. I don't recall the books ever saying Crepsley was a looker. And Reilly is one of the best actors we have, of course he does a good job. He even gets to fight in this movie, and the final fight between him and Murlough is actually really cool. They use the vampire abilities to almost make it like a fight out of an old kung fu movie. Willem Dafoe hams it up as Gavner Purl, who would have shown up more in a second movie.

I'd say it's a shame he wasn't in this one more, but like the critics said, there's too much here already. I understand wanting to compress the books, but compressing three instead of two was probably a mistake. The exposition scenes are kind of clunky, the side characters like Evra don't really get a chance to shine as they do in book 2, and there's waaaaaay too much teasing of future events. The reveal of the plot as a plan by Mr. Tiny is something that drives whole books in the original series, and it's so weird to reveal it so early on in this. Tiny, as much as I really like him in this (the shot where he freezes Darren and Steve while they're fighting is great - there are several fun shots throughout the movie), didn't need to show up in more than a couple scenes. If the next movie stayed closer to books 4-6, they wouldn't even get to any of the other stuff with him.

The changes that are made from the books are almost all in service of good stuff. While I don't think this movie needed the Vampaneze, Murlough is a cool villain and like I said, the fights are exciting. The love interest characters of Madame Truska and Rebecca might have worked better if they were friends and not love interests (Crepsley having a straight-up girlfriend is weird), but having Rebecca be the first person Darren drinks blood from in a tender moment is pretty nice. Not as good as the book's version of those events, where Darren drinks from a friend of his who is dying, but still good. There's kind of a hamfisted "It's not what you are but who you are that makes you human" message though. I really wish that when Darren said it to Steve in the finale, they could have had Crepsley roll his eyes or something.

There's a lot of humor in this movie, and most of it works. The teenagers in this movie curse like teenagers do, which is great. There's even a scene where it's brought up that Darren hides some "reading material" in his room, like a teenage boy with blocked internet probably would. I remember the books had a fair share of comedy while keeping a sort of dark and mysterious tone, and this movie does that. All the important stuff is there: The Cirque Du Freak is awesome, in both the show and the people in it, and the way the camp looks, though I wish they would have had orchestral music playing over the show instead of a James Brown remix. The vampire abilities and the unique way someone becomes a vampire are in there. The scene where Crepsley "kills" Darren is hilarious. I really like the flitting effect.

The change from the books that I like the least is with Harkat and the Little People. Was having them be tiny and CG easier than having them be hooded actual little people with a bit of makeup? You don't even see their faces in the first three books. Harkat is my favorite character from the books, and I think his appearance is, or should be, legitimately iconic. Were they trying to make the Little People marketable? Were the screenwriters really interested in the concept of them and how Tiny creates them (a process which is more interesting in the books) but not in what they actually looked like? Who knows, but I've already spent too long complaining about it.

Darren Shan himself thought this movie was pretty good, and the fans should take a page from his probably-under-250-page book. This movie, especially compared to something like freaking Death Note, gets so much right. It shows the potential of the Darren Shan saga as an adaptation. All the fans want Netflix to do this series and they really should. It's even easier to adapt than the Series of Unfortunate Events in my opinion. If they'd have thrown out most of the vampeneze stuff, maybe only having Murlough as a villain, and focused on Darren dealing with leaving his family, getting to know those in the Cirque, and connecting with Crepsley, it could have easily been a 7/10 for me.

I've been saying this for years but I really, really should get back into Darren Shan's books.

A few P.S.es:
- There's a line near the end when Mr. Tiny says that stuff about the future is "written down in a book." Were they planning to integrate Darren's diary more into the movies, and having Tiny be in possession of a future version of it? If that was so why didn't he have a diary in this movie? I'm not sure what that line meant.
- Netflix's description of this movie says that Darren "receives a life-changing bite to the neck" which is wrong.
- Crepsley has a picture of himself with Edgar Allan Poe on his desk.

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