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In strange company: Paul Weitz's 'Cirque du Freak'

September 13, 2009|John Horn

NEW ORLEANS — Paul Weitz has been drawn to mentor stories throughout his filmmaking career. As inspired as the teacher-student relationships might have been in the writer-director's "About a Boy" and "In Good Company," they can't approach the perverse pedagogic plot of his latest, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant."

In a derelict theater just outside the French Quarter last spring, Weitz was orchestrating the final showdown between two modern-day vampires. In a luxuriant lavender jacket, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) was trading knife throws with the traditionally gothic Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). The deadly duel was part of a looming war between bloodsucker camps, but the clash's immediate concern was the fate of a young newcomer to the vampire ranks: 16-year-old high school student Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia).

Adapted from the first three books in the bestselling, 12-volume "Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan" series (its Irish author, Darren O'Shaughnessy, writes under the nom de plume Darren Shan), "The Vampire's Assistant" opens with Darren and his best friend, the troubled Steve (Josh Hutcherson), visiting an underground freak show.

As striking as its participants might be (a man who can swallow a folding bike, a snake boy, a woman with unbreakable teeth), Darren and Steve are respectively mesmerized by the show's magical spider, Madam Octa, and its vampires in hiding, including Crepsley.

When Darren steals Crepsley's spider and it subsequently bites Steve, the ancient vampire (he was born in 1783) offers Darren a "Sophie's choice" to save his buddy's life: In exchange for a spider-bite serum, Darren must die himself and train under Crepsley to become his sanguinary apprentice.

As much as "The Vampire's Assistant" plays with conventions of the genre (Crepsley uses his immortality to avoid committing to his girlfriend, Salma Hayek's bearded lady, Madame Truska), the movie ultimately offers an innovative twist on the coming-of-age fantasy. Unlike Harry Potter -- who must escape his unloving relatives to discover his place in the world -- Darren is trying to escape his place in the world: a loving family.

"It's a weird spin," Weitz said. "I was really keen to do a mentor movie where someone is ushering someone into a world that is less safe but also more fulfilling."

Darren's pre-vampire life holds a predictable future of school, job and family -- and everyone around him is much the same: Stepford pretty and dull. His new world of vampires and sideshow freaks is not only colorful and multiethnic but also nonjudgmental. "It's a world," Weitz said, "where everyone gets along. But it's risky. This is a well-adjusted kid who's leaving home to become less well-adjusted."

Rather than cast a Megan Fox-like knockout as Darren's love interest, Rebecca, Weitz instead picked the comparatively plain-looking newcomer Jessica Carlson. "Not a classic beauty, but someone whose spirit is shining through," Weitz said.

Once scheduled to premiere in early 2010, "The Vampire's Assistant" will now open on Oct. 23, just a month before that other little vampire movie, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," which is being directed by Weitz's younger brother, Chris.

Paul Weitz believes the movies are anchored by clearly different themes. Where "Twilight" suggests it's OK to throw everything away for love, "The Vampire's Assistant" looks at what it means to fit in, and not hide who you are or want to become.

"This is a story set against the backdrop of a freak show," Paul Weitz said. "I think we are frying very different fish."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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