Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Movie review: 'Cirque du Freak'

By Desson Thomson
Friday, October 23, 2009

They're everywhere. Vampires. In movies such as "Twilight" and TV series such as "True Blood." And in young adult books. "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" is culled from Darren Shan's four -- count 'em, four -- trilogies about a 16-year-old boy (Darren) who becomes the involuntary assistant of a vampire known as Larten Crepsley.

And you, like the rest of the consumer lambs, are drawn to it all and might be again drawn to "Cirque," a movie that pulls two teenage boys deep into a world of vampires, killer spiders, bearded ladies and weird little guys in dark shawls who look like young cousins of Gollum/Smeagol from "The Lord of the Rings."

This movie is going to test you. The movie's collection of fanciful names, such as Evra the Snake Boy and Rhamus Twobellies, will make you think of "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." The film flows over with F/X phenomena, from "flitting" vampires to the beard that forms faster than you can say "So easy a caveman can do it" on Salma Hayek's chin.

Hayek plays a bearded lady, part of the circus show that gets the story rolling. When tickets to Cirque du Freak fall into the hands of 16-year-old best pals Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson), they decide to check it out. After watching a big-top parade of snake people, monkey-tailed girls and double-bellied guys, they become fascinated with Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a performer who puts on a great show with his oversize, poisonous spider, Madame Octa.

Steve, a vampire fanboy, believes Crepsley may be a vampire he recognizes from his comic books. And Darren, who's crazy for spiders, wants to kidnap Octa. Darren's theft of the spider leads to his becoming a vampire. When Octa bites Steve, Darren is forced to offer himself as an assistant to Crepsley, who has the only antidote that can save Steve's life. In short order, both boys become embroiled in an ongoing war between vamps (who draw just a little blood from humans) and vampaneeze (who drink 'em and kill 'em). And with each other.

As a story, the movie, directed by Paul ("American Pie") Weitz, wanders episodically all over the place. It seems to have been scripted by the impulses of someone who's checking out the various narrative tunnels of a video game. Is it about the friendship between Darren and Steve? Is it about the relationship between Darren and Crepsley? Is it just a banal extravaganza, designed to appeal to an ADD audience? Or was it a make-work project for stars such as Willem Dafoe and Ken Watanabe, whose peripheral roles don't add much to the drama?

"Cirque du Freak" has its moments of fun, many of them having to do with Reilly's deadpan comic style. But the movie lacks the original edge of its better predecessors. While it celebrates the creative and the imagined and introduces us to colorful characters, it's bland and dull. If serious, hard-core vampire movies for adults are the equivalent of spicy bloody marys, think of "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" as a watered-down Shirley Temple. Glug it down and, after the sugar rush, little sense of fulfillment filters through your system.

Thomson is a freelance reviewer.

** PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mild profanity, supernatural violence and disturbing images. 109 minutes.

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