There was no better time for fantasy young adult literature than the turn into the 2010s. In the wake of Harry Potter's massive success, studios were pulling all manner of tween-focused literature onto the silver screen, resulting in the cultural phenomenon that was Twilight. The next attempt at a page to screen franchise combined aspects of both Twilight and Harry Potter, and the result was a critical flop...but the perfect Halloween Netflix watch.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is a 2009 vampire movie that had everything going for it. Based on a critically acclaimed young adult series, the film follows a teenager named Darren as he encounters a secret world of vampires, a circus of lovable "freaks," and a tentative truce between two warring factions.
The most obvious draw for this film is its cast. John C. Reilly plays 200 year old vampire Larten Crepsley, a truly chilling starring role for an actor who has made a career out of being the bumbling sidekick. He delivers every line with a delicate balance of sarcasm and exposition. When introducing the titular circus, he establishes the setting in one simple and hilarious line: "I am so excited to be here in an anonymous small town which used to have character but is now just a bland suburb filled with chain stores and surrounded by slums."
The rest of the all star cast includes Willem Dafoe, Jane Krakowski, Kristen Schaal, Orlando Jones, Ken Watanabe, and Salma Hayek. This rogue's gallery of big names is great, but it's also the first indication of what went wrong with this movie. It crammed the introduction of so many great characters into one film, but didn't give them the space to shine.
One bright spark of this film is Josh Hutcherson, who at this point is still a few years away from reaching adaptation stardom with his role as Peeta in The Hunger Games. Hutcherson plays Steve, the best friend Darren becomes a half-vampire to save. Steve has always loved vampires and in the hopes of becoming one falls in with a bad crowd, the Vampaneze.
The overarching plot of the film centers around the tensions between the Vampires and the Vampaneze, and the conflict between Darren and Steve brings the tension to a boiling point resulting in an all out war. Unfortunately, the movie ends before the war can truly begin, but the path there is still exciting and leaves the viewer wanting more, even if the teased sequel never happened.
Still, the irreverent tone of the circus and the vampires makes one wonder what the world would have been like if Cirque du Freak became as popular as The Hunger Games. Would John C. Reilly finally have reached the leading man status he deserves? Would the "Little People" join Dobby and Gollum in terms of "weirdly adorable magical creatures?"
Speculation is a fool's errand, but at least there's the first, failed movie, a scattershot attempt at piecing together a cinematic universe. It's a riotous ride and the perfect Halloween watch, but it also sends a message: hit franchises are born, not made.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is now streaming on Netflix.