Let’s talk about franchises.
Several years ago, I read scripts for a semi-shady literary manager who firmly believed his ticket to the big time revolved around bringing to the big screen an adaptation of a moderately popular but largely forgotten 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. (That cartoon shall remain nameless.) He somehow got the ear of Warner Brothers president Alan Horn and pitched it as a live-action trilogy. The manager co-wrote treatments for this trilogy with a client who still has the dubious distinction of writing the worst script I’ve ever read (not to be confused with the stupidest).
He urgently e-mailed me one morning before a meeting, hoping I could rush feedback on the treatment for the first installation of the trilogy. Since it was a scant eight pages, I figured it’d be easy enough to give him my thoughts. Keep in mind, I had fuzzy memories of enjoying this particular cartoon as a child, so when I started reading and didn’t recognize a single thing from my memory, I was a little concerned. I thought maybe I’d misremembered and was thinking of a different cartoon, until I got to the last page, in which the main character of the cartoon is born. Prior to that, the treatment focused on the tedious, obsessively detailed political minutiae of a fictitious race on a fictitious planet, with a tacked-on love story involving the parents of the cartoon’s main character.
In other words, every single second of the proposed first film in a trilogy was devoted to backstory. In the cartoon, the main character is a fully-grown adult. At the end of the first film, he’s a newborn. That’s a tad different from something like Batman Begins. It’s more like stretching the story of Bruce Wayne’s parents out to feature length and ending with their deaths. I compared it to the opening of the 1978 Superman film, noting that it may be important to include the backstory of the parents, but it should be limited to the equivalent of a prologue in the first film. How disappointed would Superman fans be with a movie that ends with baby Kal-El getting shot into space as a baby? Even the Star Wars prequels, for all their faults, had enough sense to start with Anakin Skywalker instead of chronicling the misadventures of his mother.
The point is, a franchise-starting film has to be relatively self-contained. You can’t stack the narrative deck with backstory that will pay off in later parts of the series, because if you produce a movie without an actual story of its own, nobody will want to see it. Even if marketing tricks them into seeing it, they’re not going to like it. The fine line between backstory and story story is difficult for a big franchise because, like a TV show pilot, filmmakers seem to feel they have to cram in as much information as possible to keep audiences enticed to come back. But audiences have grown accustomed to a semi-satisfying beginning, middle, and end to the story, not just a whole lot of beginning.
If you’ve never heard of Darren Shan’s series of Cirque du Freak books, you’re probably not alone. When I got the script, it simply had a title and Brian Helgeland’s name. I didn’t know it was an adaptation and a potential franchise-starter until long after I read it. I only knew that the script was the longest first act I’d ever read—all setup, no payoff.
I’ve never felt so energized or so betrayed by a screenplay before. In the first 30 or 40 pages, Helgeland perfectly captures a tone I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen done properly in a movie. I spent far too much of my youth reading crappy R.L. Stine books and really great Ray Bradbury stories, and Helgeland manages to make the opening of Cirque du Freak feel a great deal like those eerie-yet-appropriate-for-children stories I used to eat up. Unfortunately, the script blows its wad early and spends the remainder setting up things that will undoubtedly pay off in the next movie—except there won’t be one, because nobody likes a 90-minute prologue where not much really happens.
The first chunk of the script focuses on middle-schoolers Darren (played in the film by annoyingly mush-mouthed Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Helgeland describes Darren as a friendly, well-liked kid; Steve, he describes as a bad seed and a bad influence. They’ve been best friends forever, but they’re on diverging paths, and Darren is sort of at a crossroads. His parents see this and, after Darren’s mother witnesses Steve stealing $60 from her purse, she says nothing to Steve but forbids Darren from being his friend. This strikes a rebellious chord in Darren, who decides to take Steve up on his offer to sneak out and see Cirque du Freak.
Steve has developed a disturbing obsession with Cirque du Freak—a traveling freak show that has taken over a rundown theatre in their small suburb—ever since he identified its emcee, Crepsley (John C. Reilly), as a vampire. He found advertisements for the show dating back to the 1920s, all of which feature Crepsley lookalikes. Dubious, Darren goes along with Steve for the fun of it, but there’s a dark undercurrent to the way Steve talks about Crepsley. The freak show itself boasts an alarming number of real oddities, including an actual wolfman, a beautiful woman who can grow a beard with the snap of her fingers, and an exotic spider that can do tricks. And then there’s Crepsley, whose pale skin, frightening demeanor, and apparent ease with mind control and hypnosis make Darren start to wonder about Steve’s assertion. Maybe he is a vampire.
After the show, Steve tries to ditch Darren to hang around afterward. Darren argues at first, but Steve insists. He protests too much, however, and Darren’s fear and suspicion mounts. He pretends to go but instead silently follows Steve, who sneaks backstage and finds Crepsley’s coffin. To Darren’s dismay, Steve begs Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. Crepsley obliges by biting him immediately, but he spits out Steve’s blood like poison and tells him he’s tainted. Terrified, Steve runs away. So does Darren, but not before stealing the aforementioned exotic spider.
Over the next few days, Darren hides the spider in his bedroom, but his intrusive sister causes the spider to get loose. It bites Steve—who has defied Darren’s parents by sneaking over—and its venom causes him to immediately go into anaphylactic shock. The hospital’s entomology experts believe Darren’s photos of the spider have been doctored, so they can’t find an antivenom to save Steve. Once the doctors leave, Crepsley appears to Darren and makes a deal: he’ll cure Steve’s poison and save his life—in exchange for Darren’s. He needs an assistant, and he also believes it’s Darren’s destiny to become a vampire. Reluctantly, Darren agrees.
I loved the script up until this point.
Steve ignores the life-saving aspect of Darren’s sacrifice and focuses on the fact that Darren has what he wants. Crepsley helps Darren fake his death, but Steve knows the truth and becomes a juvenile vampire hunter, hot on the heels of Darren at all times. Crepsley and Darren spend most of the remaining script discussing this world’s variation on vampire lore and occasionally running away from Steve and others trying to hunt Crepsley.
The story’s vampire rules go like this: humans become vampires in stages, starting as assistants and gradually moving up to full vampires. They need to learn the ropes of the vampire underworld before they can be trusted in the sacred brotherhood. Vampires need blood to survive, but they also need real food. They also don’t need to kill their victims. Instead of subsisting on animal blood as the reformed vampires of Buffy and Angel do, Crepsley medicates his victims, draws a few pints of blood, and leaves them in a safe place. Vampires can’t fly, but they can “flit”—moving great distances in short amounts of time, unseen by the naked eye. In this world, vampires also age. They’re not strictly immortal—their aging process has merely slowed, so they age one year for every ten they live. In other words, Crepsley has lived 211 years as a vampire but has only aged 21, so he looks to be in his early 40s. (For unexplained reasons that I assume have to do with taking the long view of a franchise populated by the same actors, it’s explained that assistants age one year for every five they live.)
The vampires have split into rival factions: the “good” vampires like Crepsley, who humanely feed on humans without causing long-term harm, and the “vampaneze,” who believe it’s their sacred duty to rid the world of humans by killing as many as possible in the feeding process. I wanted to like this, because it creates a moral dilemma Helgeland has no interest in actually exploring. The vampires aren’t portrayed as benevolent creatures who stopped killing because they want to peacefully coexist and stick daisies in the gun barrels of their human oppressors. They stopped killing because once the killing starts, so does the vampire hunting. If they lay low and feed without killing, humans don’t take as much of an interest in the vampire underground.
For the majority of what could charitably be called the script’s second act, Darren and Crepsley don’t do much more than hang out, occasionally changing up locations, but mostly just sitting around, talking about this world’s vampire lore. Nothing dramatically compelling or even particularly interesting happens, even though Helgeland lays out a handful of intriguing extensions of the vampire myth. He does it in the least interesting possible way, losing sight of characters and conflicts established early in the script for an extended lesson on lore.
Vampaneze leader Murlough (Ray Stevenson) and his faithful companion, Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), are hot on Crepsley’s trail, so he decides to elude them by rejoining Cirque du Freak in Pennsylvania. I’m no expert on hiding out, but wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid the freak show with which Crepsley has associated himself for the past hundred years if the goal is to hide? Maybe the plan was to hide in plain sight—the script is suspiciously unclear—but whatever the case, Darren gets a warm welcome among the freaks, who can teach him more about the mythology of this universe. Apparently, Murlough wants to start some sort of war between the vampire factions, and even though Darren and Crepsley are the only Cirque du Freak vampires, they’re apparently the leaders of the vampire resistance. Murlough wants Crepsley dead, because he was once a great Vampire General who killed more vampaneze than any known vampire. Murlough needs Crepsley out of the way if he’s to wage his war.
The big twist that Murlough has taken Steve under his wing should come as a surprise to no one, and because he disappears for so much of the script, the conflict between him and Darren is undermined and feels more like a cheap twist than an earned betrayal. At any rate, Darren has grown sick because he refuses to drink blood. When Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve go after Crepsley, he’s forced to drink the blood of Sam (renamed Pete and played by Daniel Newman in the film) to get up to “half-vampire strength” and fight off the vampaneze. He rescues Crepsley, and together they kill Mr. Tiny and fight off Murlough and Steve, naturally without killing them.
Now that Darren has accepted his fate as a vampire, it’s time for Crepsley to take him to the assembly of Vampire Generals so they can plan a way to defeat Murlough and the vampaneze.
That’s the end of the script—an incredible tease of action to come, with only a handful of ineffectual fight scenes and a metric ton of explanation.
I can only imagine better things were to come, because this script managed to lure the likes of Reilly, Stevenson, Cerveris, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Patrick Fugit, Colleen Camp, Don McManus, and Frankie Faison. Maybe some of these actors would have signed on, anyway, but considering how little they have to do in the script (one thing that doesn’t much change in the movie), it only makes sense to me that they were promised better things to come with these characters as the franchise went on.
The film’s most significant change is its tone. As I wrote earlier, the start of Helgeland’s script perfectly captures the kid-friendly creep factor of Ray Bradbury, and although the dearth of real conflict and suspense in the rest of the script makes it a huge disappointment, Helgeland never strays too far from that tone. It has its share of funny moments, but I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy. Even when I learned that Reilly would star as Crepsley, I assumed it would retain the same tone—thanks to his participation in Will Ferrell movies, it’s easy to forget that Reilly is one of the best actors working today.
Director Paul Weitz, who is credited on the screenplay for the finished film, gets rid of the few good things present in Helgeland’s script and turns the film into something akin to a wacky, effects-laden vampire comedy. The opening scenes of the script have a nice grounding in reality that contributes to the eerie atmosphere, but Weitz disposes of that, changing virtually everything in favor of wacky but largely unfunny comedy. Darren’s parents forbid him from being Steve’s friend, but the decision seems arbitrary and mean. Steve never steals money from Darren’s mother and doesn’t use the money to finance their admission to the freak show. Darren brings the spider to school, Steve takes it away from him and drops the cage, bringing the spider bite on himself. (It personally offends me when movies try so hard to make the good guys good that nobody can be even remotely culpable in a bad action—the script’s version worked much better and felt much more plausible than Steve getting startled and dropping the cage.)
I’d call it a plus side if it yielded a better film, but the second half is much different in the film than the script. Much of the myth-making remains, but the film introduces much more conflict, peril, and jeopardy. Murlough shows up much earlier, attempting to kidnap Darren and turn him into a vampaneze. Crepsley stops him, and they flee to the freak show, not to hide but for safety. This leads to a romantic subplot involving Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), the “monkey girl” (she has a tail). There’s a similar subplot in the script involving a girl named Debbie, but here there’s a bit more development, especially when Murlough kidnaps her as an attempt to turn the freak show against Darren and have him sent away. Meanwhile, as in the script, Murlough gets his mitts into Steve (who’s surprisingly suicidal, considering how watered-down the film is compared to the script), but he uses Steve’s knowledge to get a handle on Darren’s weakness—his family, whom Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve kidnap to use as leverage to get rid of Darren.
Here’s why using the family wouldn’t have worked in the script and works even less well in the film. Ultimately, the story is about a bond forming between Darren and Crepsley. Darren has to give up his actual family—who, in the film, are portrayed as cartoonishly irredeemable, patently awful people—and get used to the surrogate family of freaks, led by father figure Crepsley. For all its fault, Helgeland’s script wisely puts Crepsley in danger, forcing Darren to embrace his new way of life and do what he has to in order to keep his “family” safe. That’s much more satisfying than needing to save his real family, who don’t contribute much to the story in the first place (other than giving Darren a reason to want to leave, because who would want to stay with them?), and it never allows Darren to really solidify his bond with the freaks. He pretty much aligns with them not because he wants to, not because he feels he’s one of them (despite painfully awful voiceover narration at the end in which Darren says just that), but because he’s been backed into a corner and has no choice but to stop the vampaneze to keep his family safe.
It’s just awful, made all the worse by Weitz’s insistence on comedy above all. Never as funny as it should be or thinks it is, the film creates situations that should repair all the script’s issues with conflict, story, and character—but the wacky tone prevents us from taking anything that happens seriously. People keep getting kidnapped, but there’s no sense of jeopardy, which makes it feel like all the characters are simply going through the motions, play-acting a story they’re all secretly rolling their eyes through.
Credit needs to go to the two standouts in this film, Reilly and Hutcherson. Both of them ignore Weitz’s light comedic tone and play their characters as actual people—haunted, serious, sort of glum, not at all funny. They do great work with underwritten characters mired in a mess of a movie, and they should be commended for their work here. Unfortunately, despite the wide-ranging cast of recognizable ringers, they’re the only ones who deserve kudos. Everyone else seems either faintly amused or acutely bored with everything that’s happening, like they’re waiting out the film until their moments to shine in later parts of the franchise.
Although the film attempts to repair some of the franchise-first, quality-last issues with the screenplay, the end result is worse than the original script. In all cases, it’s a problem with the egregious “franchise-starter” mentality at big studios. Everyone wants a Harry Potter or Twilight or Batman or Iron Man—cash cows that audiences flock to. But, for all the flaws of these franchises, they have one thing in common: their earliest efforts were real movie stories. Even if they were crass attempts to launch a successful franchise, they could have gone one and out and still had a good standalone film. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant never had that, and it suffered both creatively and commercially for it. What a shame.