Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant -- Film Review

For whatever reason, vampires are all the rage in popular culture right now. The latest high-profile attraction is Universal's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," which derives from a series of successful fantasy novels by U.K. author Darren Shan.

While no vampire film, no matter how bad, is going to drive a stake through the heart of such films, "Cirque du Freak" does remind audiences that lately these films are suffering from very tired blood.

"Freak" might open well thanks to interest in the books and blood-suckers in general. But audiences might get lost in this unwieldy mixture of the undead, teenage antics, failed comedy and circus freaks. One of the film's bigger burdens is to establish characters and subplots for potential sequels. Based on these results, the likelihood of such a series is unduly optimistic.

The director is Paul Weitz, and he appears miscast. Because comedy is his forte with such hits as "American Pie" and "About a Boy," the tone is comic. But nothing in the script he wrote with Brian Helgeland is remotely funny. And turning the vampire fights and their warp-speed travels into opportunities for special-effect slapstick undermines the creepy darkness you crave in any vampire tale.

As with the "Twilight" saga, the next chapter of which will arrive shortly from Weitz's brother Chris, teen angst mingles with traditional vampire fare. The hero is young Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) -- yes, the novelist names his protagonist after himself -- whose best friend, the unstable Steve (Josh Hutcherson), talks him into attending a freak show that has come to their unnamed town.

There, the duo encounters a 220-year-old vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, who seems to be playing every one of those years). Steve, a fan of vampires, instantly recognizes the dude for who he is -- something about seeing his picture in a book once -- and the two, rather unconvincingly, become involved in the lives of Crepsley and the freak show.

Mixing vampires with freaks certainly has no tradition, but for a while, the film picks up a little energy from this twist. The freaks are entertaining CG-enhanced characters, ranging from Ken Watanabe's Mr. Tall, who runs the place, to Orlando Jones' Alexander Ribs, Frankie Faison's two-bellied gourmet, Jane Krakowski's woman with detachable limbs and Jessica Carlson's monkey girl. However, these creatures are but dress extras other than Carlson, who becomes Darren's love interest.

The story has the two boys trigger a war between clans of vampires that destroys a shaky truce. But this is dull and uninvolving. Nor is there any reason for their participation in this political strife. What's at stake for them?

The trouble is, too many characters must be introduced in the interest of future episodes without having much to do in this one. These include Salma Hayek, a bearded lady whose beard mysteriously disappears most of the time, and Willem Dafoe's vampire with a John Waters pencil mustache who literally does nothing.

Miscalculation runs through the entire movie. The tone is all wrong, the effects are poorly used, and the acting styles range all over the place. Actors playing one-note minor characters are encouraged to exaggerate, and the youngsters would not be out of place in a Disney film. Sets and cinematography emphasize the story's creepiness, but the action runs counter to any chills or thrills.

Making a vampire movie without any bite is like removing guns from a Western.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 23 (Universal)