The Vampire’s Assistant is a movie that exists, and that’s about where it stops for most people. But I’m not most people. No, as a matter of fact, I think I constitute the whole of this film’s fanbase. It’s a crying shame that you can’t call something a cult classic just because you think it should be one.
Or can you?
First, though, a very important question: what is a cult classic?
Look it up on Wikipedia, and you’re in for a commitment. Apparently, there is some debate on what, exactly, the definition of a “cult film” or “cult classic” is. Purists claim it must be controversial to the mainstream (among other things), while others say it’s simply a film that didn’t do well initially but built a small but dedicated fanbase after the fact.
Much like art or freedom of speech, the definition can become somewhat nebulous, until practically anything can count as a cult classic if you just use your imagination enough.
But in order to determine whether The Vampire’s Assistant is a cult classic, I shall be evaluating it on the following criteria:
- Box office bomb
- Artistic and/or entertainment value
- Lovable flaws
- Small but dedicated fan base
So with that incredibly subjective definition in mind, let’s talk about Universal Studios’ failed attempt to start a book-to-movie franchise, 2009’s Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.
Does a film count as a cult classic if it only has a fanbase of one? Let’s find out.
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Part 1: What the heck even is The Vampire’s Assistant?
The Vampire’s Assistant is a film that you have probably seen pop up on Netflix from time to time, or play on TV. (Who still watches cable anymore?) Or maybe it just kind of rings a bell somewhere maybe?
I watched it for the first time as a teenager serendipitously, at my best friend’s house, because she happened to have it and said that it was entertaining.
Spoiler alert: it was.
Like, it wasn’t a great movie… but it wasn’t a god awful movie either… it had just enough charm and wit to be respectable, but there were some glaringly obvious flaws that were fun to laugh about in the moment… and then got funnier the more you thought about them. It became a movie I wanted to rewatch just for the spectacle. And rewatch. And rewatch.
Now it is a yearly ritual, often subscribed during the so-called spooky season, because, I mean, it’s got vampires in the title and yeah, it’s at least a little spooky, in a campy theme park sort of way.
(By the way, sadly there aren’t any Vampire’s Assistant gifs so you’re getting What We Do in the Shadows. You’re welcome!)
If you didn’t know, The Vampire’s Assistant is an adaptation of a 12-part book series called Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan by… Darren Shan. If you’re in my age bracket, you may remember seeing them at your local or school library in middle school or high school – they were popular in the early to mid-2000s and constituted a category that, to me, seemed like the older kid version of Goosebumps. Also, I remember specifically thinking that these were “boys” books. Which, target demographic-wise, they sort of were.
In any case, growing up, I had no interest in reading them – they seemed pretty dark and horror-esque to me, and I just wasn’t into that – but I nonetheless noticed them enough that I knew what the movie had been based on when I saw it.
But suffice it to say, the movie is nothing like the books. For one thing, it committed a very common book-to-movie adaptation sin of the time: it tried to combine the events of the first 3 books into one movie. For another thing, from what I’ve heard, the books are dark, gritty, and horrific. The movie is… weird, and campy, and fantastic.
Fans of the series were surely disappointed. But as someone with absolutely no context other than an awareness that these books existed, I couldn’t have cared less.
In fact, I think it’s great.
And apparently I’m the only one who thought so, because this movie was the definition of a box office bomb. Its budget was $40 million and its worldwide gross was a painfully ironic $39 million. Zoo-ee mama.
But enough background, if I’m gonna talk about this thing, you at least need to know a basic plot summary. And don’t worry; this time, it won’t take me 45 minutes to do it.
A Short But Informative Plot Summary
Our two main characters are Darren Shan (played by Chris Massoglia – more on him later) and Steve Leonard (played by baby Josh Hutcherson!) Darren is a good boy who always does what he’s told. Steve is a bad boy and gets Darren into trouble. When they find a flyer for a one-night-only freak show, they sneak out to go see it.
Steve, who’s super into vampires, recognizes one of the circus performers as a vampire named Larton Crepsley (John C. Reilly). Meanwhile Darren… falls in love with a spider? He sneaks into the vampire’s dressing room to steal it, and overhears Steve tell Crepsley to turn him. Crepsley refuses and kicks him out instead. Darren makes off with the spider.
The next day at school, Steve catches Darren with the spider. It gets out and bites him, which is apparently fatal. Darren finds Crepsley and begs him to give Steve the antidote; Crepsley consents, but only if Darren agrees to become a half-vampire and *da da da da* his assistant! Darren says he’ll do it. Crepsley turns him, Darren fakes his death, and he’s swept away to the Cirque du Freak. Meanwhile, Steve joins the dark side. Yes, there’s a dark side.
This is all the first 45 minutes of the movie, by the way. You see why this should’ve been a longer series, or a TV show, or something? It’s a lot, and the action hasn’t even started yet.
Basically, the rest of the movie deals with Darren and Steve getting pulled into this feud between vampires (who don’t kill their prey) and the vampaneze (who do). They’re pitted against each other and there’s a lot of set-up for future movies that goes absolutely nowhere… but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a fun time anyway.
Why? I’ll tell you why!
Part 2: This Movie Has No Business Having The Cast That it Does
The Vampire’s Assistant had no business having the cast that it does, but it did. Aside from the main actor, who was largely unknown (and still is… more on him later!) you’ve got quite the lineup: John C. Reilly, Willem Dafoe, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek, Ray Stevenson… the list goes on, because many of the actors in this movie, even the lesser-known ones, are great.
And they’re all cast very differently from what you might expect.
In the behind-the-scenes interviews (yes, I watched them all), director Paul Weitz comments on being able to see Reilly flex his acting muscles in a role that doesn’t require him to act like a giant man baby… okay, so, those weren’t his words verbatim, but it is true. Reilly’s a great comedic actor, but he’s also got a ton of range, and he really pulls off the cynical yet snarky and reluctantly paternal 200-year-old vampire Larton Crepsley.
He’s still funny. Crepsley gets almost all of the best lines. But Reilly’s performance is so delightfully deadpan that you also end up actually taking him seriously from time to time.
In general, from watching the movie and the behind-the-scenes, you can tell that most if not all the actors just had a lot of fun playing these weird roles. There’s a great comment from Orlando Jones, who played Alexander Ribs, where he says, “I think every actor reaches a point in their career where they want to play a character who eats body parts.”
Now, let’s touch real quick on poor Chris Massoglia, our leading man. He got a lot of flack for his performance in this movie because, let’s be honest, a lot of the time he’s a piece of cardboard. And often when I’d recommend this movie to people, I’d say, “It’s campy, it’s fun, John C. Reilly is great, but the main actor is a piece of cardboard.”
And while, yes, that’s not untrue, this was also his first major acting gig. Not to mention that he was seventeen years old at the time. Yes, they cast an actual seventeen year old to play, well, assumedly, a seventeen year old.
But upon rewatching this movie, I had to rethink my assessment of him. Because yes, while there are some scenes where you think, “Is that really the take they went with?” There are other scenes where his performance is really sincere. Like, it wasn’t that he was a horrible actor, it was that he was an inexperienced actor. And by putting him up against seasoned pros like Reilly and even Hutcherson, who was the same age as Massoglia but who had already built up an impressive repertoire, it really shows.
In the behind-the-scenes, Weitz makes a comment about how much he liked that Massoglia “didn’t overact.” He said he had a naturalness to him, and that he wanted the character to come off like an actual person. And while that’s fine and good, there’s just one little problem: you’ve stuck this organic character into an extremely nonorganic environment, where even white suburbia seems off-kilter and unnatural.
That really makes the character stand out. So in part, it wasn’t really Massoglia’s fault. It was the director’s, for a) choosing to cast a greenie as the lead in a movie where every supporting actor is more experienced than he was and b) purposefully wanting him to underact when literally everyone else around him is overacting.
But in the end, even Massoglia’s dry, stilted deliveries of lines like “Life isn’t meaningless” and “It won’t start a war if nobody hears about it” become charming and unintentionally hilarious.
Not to mention incredibly quotable.
Part 3: I Quote The Vampire’s Assistant on a Regular Basis and I Don’t Care Who Knows It
The writing is not bad. There. I said it. It’s not bad. I have no idea how it stands up to the books, or how many lines they lifted directly from the books, but the way they’re worked into the movie and the actors’ deliveries of them altogether make for a lot of fun, often witty, and sometimes hilarious (whether intentional or not) dialogue.
I already mentioned that Crepsley has many of the best lines, and that is true. He’s responsible for supplying a lot of exposition, especially about vampires, but none of it feels forced or on the nose. It’s fun and memorable in its own right, but like I mentioned, it’s not his well-delivered lines that are the most quotable.
It’s Massoglia’s poorly-delivered ones.
But aside from that, aside from some weird pacing and the fact that this was supposed to be a set-up for a series that never happened, the plot isn’t that bad. It drags in the middle, as many plots do, but the beginning exposition is honestly a fun time.
They had the seeds of something good here. You can see that this could’ve been a good movie. Maybe if they’d been allowed to make sequels, it would’ve fit in better and felt less aimless. As it is, they try to shove a lot into one nearly-two-hour-long runtime, which is of course the problem with compressing 3 books into 1 movie.
But it could’ve been a lot worse. It could’ve been a lot worse. It’s got just enough connective tissue to make it an entertaining ride.
And there are so many memeable lines. Like, this movie is chalk-full of memes ripe for the picking and yet, for the life of me, I’ve only ever seen this one:
Which is, in and of itself, a great line.
Part 4: So, is it a cult classic or isn’t it?
Well, let’s revisit my criteria, shall we?
Was The Vampire’s Assistant a box office bomb? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. Check that one off the list.
Artistic and/or entertainment value? I hope this analysis has convinced you. I thought it was entertaining. And there really are some decently artistic elements at play here, even if they’re a bit muddled by the campy-ness.
On that note, lovable flaws? I would say so. If you like watching things without taking them too seriously, you’ll definitely enjoy the flaws.
Small but dedicated fan base? Ha! I’m pretty sure it’s just me out here, a fanbase of one. But hey, we’re 3 for 4, which is a 75%, a.k.a. a passing grade! So, YES, this is a cult classic in my book, huzzah, I win!
Appendix: Where are they now?
Most of the cast were big-name actors, so you kinda already know where they are. But the big question on everyone’s mind, or at least on mine, is WHAT HAPPENED TO CHRIS MASSOGLIA???
I was super-duper curious, because I hadn’t seen him in anything since. The answer is that he went on to star in a few smaller productions before ultimately leaving the acting scene (though his last credited roll is from 2020, so it’s not like he disappeared completely!) to… wait for it… run for city council in Blaine, Minnesota.
So he’s mostly just a regular human dude with a wife and a kid, living his best life in the American Midwest, being a real-life Ben Wyatt in reverse… I don’t know, it just makes me really happy when actors turn out to be normal people.
Though it does make one wonder… when he was campaigning, how many people recognized him as that kid from The Vampire’s Assistant?
I mean, I doubt anyone did, but I’d still like to think he won because of that.
One can only hope.