The Night Out: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009), or No, That’s Bullshit

24 10 2009

John C. Reilly is my guy. Anything that guy does is pure gold for me. Whether it’s the pointed drama of Hard Eight or the unrivaled insanity of Step Brothers, he just has such a range of emotions. Recently, he’s been hitting the comedy films, and I’ve yet to see him in anything over the past 5 years that has been anything approaching serious, but if you go back to the late 90s and early 00s, you’ll see he has a lot to offer as a serious performer. The character he plays in today’s film, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, is a step in that serious direction, falling somewhere between serious vampire and tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a better film than I thought it would be, but only because of Reilly’s uncanny ability to make anything impeccably entertaining.

Basically, we’re taken to the land of Anytown, USA, where we meet Darren, a young man in high school who has made it his drive in life to take the path of least resistance. He gets good grades, does what his parents tell him to do, and just has a nominal existence in general. His best friend, Steve, is a little wilder though, with an unstable family past and a slightly more exciting outlook on life. One day the two are walking to class when a weird car rushes by, dropping a flyer to them for a freak show called Cirque du Freak. It sounds like fun, so straight-laced Darren sneaks out the night of the show to go with Steve. What they find is a vivid world of magical circus performers. There’s the man who can eat anything, the woman who can regenerate her own limbs, the boy with snake skin. The real stand-out performer though is a man who one of the boys recognizes as a vampire, named Larten Crepsley. He does a strange act with a one-of-a-kind giant spider that captures both of their imaginations.

When the show ends, Darren, who is revealed to be in love with spiders, concocts a plan to steal the giant spider and take it home for, I dunno, bug stuff. But before he can, Crepsley returns to the dressing room where he kept the spider and entertains two guests. One of them is Gavner, a vampire like himself, and the other is Steve, who busts in and demands in a frenzy for Crepsley to change him into a vampire. Crepsley chides him for bursting in, but tests him to see if he has what it takes to be like him, a test that Steve fails (he tells him his blood is “bad”, although I don’t know what that means). Steve is crestfallen and angered, and he vows vengeance on Crepsley. Crepsley scoffs at the idea, and sends him packing. Darren sees the whole thing before running off with the spider, and confronts Steve about it the next day at school. It all culminates when the giant spider escapes Darren’s bag at school (??) and bites Steve, who wants to kill the spider. He falls into a coma, and it seems there’s nothing to be done. But Darren knows that Crepsley must have an antidote, so he risks the vampire’s wrath to save his friend.

And Crepsley does indeed have an antidote, but the price for it is high; he is to become Crepsley’s assistant, a half-vampire who can do things for him in the daylight that a full vampire couldn’t. For this, he must live with Crepsley in the Cirque du Freak, fake his death to his family and friends, and learn the ways of the vampire. A steep tax, but Darren agrees for the sake of his friend, and he is thrust into a world he never even imagined; a world of magic, intrigue, passion, and murder that will change his outlook on life forever.

WHEW! This is the beginning of another hopeful franchise, so there is a LOT of back-story to tell. What you really need to know is that there’s a kid who has to do stuff for a vampire and learn the ways of the night, like a vampire Star Wars, or the even more relatable idea of a tub of margarine running errands for a stick of Land O’ Lakes. This is your standard first episode film; there’s lots of exposition, lots of explaining, and lots of characters that will (hopefully) become more useful in later installments. It was marketed as a young adult film, a dark and edgy flick for the PG-13 crowd, but it has an attitude that skips most of the niceties and goes for the jugular, something I like in these humdrum first installments. There is definitely a sense of urgency, something in the hearts and minds of the characters that makes all this somehow breezier than I expected it to be. It still could have used a little autonomy, a little reassurance that what we just watched wasn’t a primer for a future, better movie, but it still had its moments.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t respond to teen actors very well. They besmirch my mind and dull my sense of what is good and decent. There’s really not much they can do about it either, other than NOT act like pretty-boy wallpaper. Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson are Darren and Steve, and they surely had no real chance of not annoying me, but at least they didn’t act too obnoxiously, with the whole “teens are smarter than adults” angle that puts holes in my cerebellum whenever I hear that squiggly line of thought.

It’s all about Reilly anyway. Reilly plays Crepsley with a mix of Dr. Caligari, John C. Reilly, and Robert Mitchum that I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know how serious he was during the filming of this, but he gives off some signals every now and then that this might all be some huge joke that I wasn’t aware of. He IS serious, for the most part, though, and he lends a lot to all the many long exposition scenes that wouldn’t have been there with anyone else helming the character. And with lines like, “Your lips say ‘no’, but your beard says ‘yes'” in the film, you might as weill sign me up for any future installments. All the other adult actors make what amount to cameo appearances, and they could have all been aliens or sock puppets for all I cared. Ken Watanabe plays an abnormally large guy who grimaces a lot; no big loss there. Willem Dafoe plays Gavner, a character that is somewhere between John Waters and Walt Disney that I’m not too comfortable with, let alone interested in. Selma Hayek is a bearded lay. ‘Nuff said. One standout though was Michael Cerveris, who plays Mr. Tiny, a mysterious character we’ll learn about more in some other movie. He’s really freaky, and when you’re dealing with a movie like this, that’s a great characteristic to have.

There are some good effects here, a few key moments on the score, and some sequences that really work. Billy Wilder would have already called this a good one by now, in his book. CdF:TVA is a good first installment to a saga that probably has some legs to it. Only time will tell whether this one will get a sequel greenlighted, but if it was up to me, today, I would give it a thumbs-up, provided the sequel actually advanced the plot in some way and didn’t keep adding more and more exposition to the pile. And the condition that I could play wall-ball with John C. Reilly. It’s not for your younger kids, but if you have any mid to older teens who need to get out of the gouse for 100 minutes while you fuck your spouse, this is the movie that wouldn’t bore them, out of all the new releases. I give this movie 7 1/2 future installments out of 10. Give it a shot if you trust me enough!

Tomorrow is another day, and another movie! I’ll be sure to surprise you guys with something good!

The Sentinel (1977), or Closing The Door

24 10 2009

Have you heard of this movie? The answer to that’s probably ‘no’, since I’ve never heard anyone in my entire life so much as mention it. It was a modestly budgeted supernatural horror from ’77 that carried a mind-boggling amount of star power, but not a lot of word-of-mouth here in the States. Directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish fame, The Sentinel has a pretty scary concept, an abrupt style that is just as jump-inducing as any loud music sting you could throw at an audience, and a claustrophobic soundtrack that feels like a spider building its web in your innards. If the cast were just a little more worthwhile, I would be calling this an undiscovered classic.

In a tiny posh neighborhood of Brooklyn, a young girl named Allison has just closed a deal on a super-cool rental house divided into apartments. She’s a famous fashion model with a few too many neuroses, and needs to be by herself for a while. She’s had a rough time with life, and has attempted suicide twice in her life already, and now, leaving her friends, her family, and her Roman Catholic faith behind her, she’s trying to get on with herself and start healing. But what her real estate agent doesn’t tell her about the apartment is that there are some odd neighbors in the apartments around her that aren’t all they seem. At the top floor lives a mysterious blind priest named Father Halloran, an old man with a shady past who just sits in his room all day looking out t the window. Another neighbor, a mysterious old man named Charles Chazen, comes to Allison one night and invites her to his cat’s birthday party (???) where she can meet all her other neighbors. Needless to say, he’s kind of bizarre, and Allison is unnerved by him. The longer she stays in the apartment, the more her mental and physical health deteriorates, and the more she is haunted by the painful memories of her past. And of the present, when she begins to see visions of mysterious, disfigured people mindlessly roaming the halls and corridors of her building. All this is compounded by the fact that when she asks her real estate agent about her other neighbors, she shocks Allison by telling her that the only other neighbor she has is the blind priest (!!!). So who is Charles Chazen? Who are the strange people who inhabit the building at night? Can she find out before it’s too late?

Good movie, although somewhat of a diatribe for the reawakening of the Catholic faith. Is it just me, or has anyone ever noticed that most horror movies with a religious message always tend to terrify people into piety? As if to say, “You better come back to the Catholic Church, or the Devil is going to rip your face off and use it as a decorative napkin!” Anyway, The Sentinel is a film that tends to think that less is more, and I agree. We really don’t see all that much of the horror and terror in Allison’s apartment, unless you count Burgess Meredith’s intense graying countenance as Charles Chazen. There’s a lot of that. But all the oddities and apparitions in the apartment are mostly left to the imagination as to what they could be. But when they show you the horror, get ready for some intensity. The one scene that everyone mentions online about this movie is really in-your-face, and just shock-and-awes my nerves. Allison’s investigatingĀ  a dark room, and before she can actually walk into a room, some scary guy just walks with intention in front of her and crosses the room. Not that kind of thriller walk, where the film speed downplays the quickness of the character; this guy power-walks in front of her, and if you’ve ever had someone walk right up to you that fast, but it’s a little jarring. Here, it’s fucking heart-pounding, because you don’t even know who or what it is.

It’s kind of hard to comment about the special effects and make-up. Considering I don’t know exactly what the things in the apartment are, I don’t really know how good they look comparatively. But they do look scary, that’s for sure. They’re very pale, their skin is textured and disfigured, and they each have some unique characteristic to them that makes them individually eerie. This film has come under fire in their past for a particular scene in which some of the “neighbors” are played by circus “freaks” and side-show carnival folk. And while I don’t think that part was in particularly good taste, it’s a lot less demeaning than their day-jobs (“Come one, come all, to take a look at the FREAKS!”) and it does add something to the scene’s climax. They’re not being beaten to death by Burgess Meredith with a rusty steel pipe or anything, so I don’t think it was the worst call in the world to make on Michael Winner’s part.

Speaking of Burgess Meredith, he’s the gleaming ball of sunshine in this otherwise lackluster cast. He plays Charles Chazen, the shady guy who might just be a bit more than your friendly neighborhood cat person. He’s creepy, freaky, and all-together perfect with his low, growling voice and his bulldog face. Everyone else, though, suffers from deer-in-headlights syndrome. Allison is played by Christina Raines, and she looks rather confused as to how she’s supposed to act. Her role, such as it is, is interesting, but she has all the subtlety of a grilled cheese sandwich to the face. But she’s just the tip of the iceberg. Would you believe Christopher Walken is in this movie? That’s right; Christopher “I Have A Chicken” Walken is Detective Rizzo, a guy who’s investigating the odd occurrences as a favor. He’s still in Young Walken mode, before he went full-on applesauce insane, so he’s pretty tame here. He’s actually kind of boring, really, so he gets no thumbs-up from me. John Carradine makes a brief cameo as the blind priest Father Halloran, but he’s in it for only a few seconds, so he’s more of a set piece than an actual character. Martin Balsam is here too! And Ava Gardner! And Jeff Goldblum! But nobody is really that great! It’s really all about the Meredith here, a testament to his career that he could still act circles around people in his old age.

So a bland cast mars an otherwise great feature. The Sentinel is good supernatural haunted-house story that anyone can just sit back and watch without a care in the world. It’s spooky, it’s thrilling, and if you can get past the glaring religious message, it’s quite entertaining. There aren’t a lot of movies like this, so if you don’t try it once, you might really be missing out. It will make the perfect accessory for a dark October night snuggled up on the couch as the night moves slowly upon the world like waves on the sands. I give The Sentinel 7 1/2 power-walking demons out of 10. Check it out!

Whew! Almost caught up! Keep checking back with me for my review of Cirque du Freak: The Vampires Assistant! Until then!!!