Blending a sardonic sense of humor with a healthy dose of things that go bump in the night, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is a mostly entertaining horror-comedy that introduces us to a world which, with any luck, we’ll get to know better over the course of a few more movies.
After a terrific opening credits sequence (the creepily jaunty score is by “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” composer Stephen Trask), we’re introduced to Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson), best pals who are polar opposites. Steve’s a trouble-maker from a broken home, while Darren’s loving parents drill the hard-work mantra of “College! Job! Family!” into his head.
One night, they sneak off to the Cirque du Freak, an astounding collection of sideshow amazements that include bearded lady Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), would-be rocker Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit) and the auto-regenerating Corma Limbs (Jane Krakowski), who can cut off parts of her body and grow replacements before your very eyes.
Both Darren and Steve are entranced by headliner Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) — Darren, who’s crazy about spiders, goes googly-eyed at Octa, Crepsley’s colorful eight-legged sidekick, while vampire-obsessed Steve recognizes Crepsley from a picture in a book about the undead.
After the show, Darren sneaks into Crepsley’s dressing room to get a closer look at Octa; when he hides in the wardrobe, he hears Steve come and ask Crepsley to convert him into a vampire. Crepsley refuses — Steve’s blood tastes like evil — while a fleeing Darren gets picked up by a creepy limo owned by the mysterious Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris). Mr. Tiny wants to foment war between two rival camps: the Vampires, who drink blood but don’t kill their victims, and the Vampinese, who murder their prey. Mr. Tiny knows that Darren and Steve are going to be central to this conflict.
When Octa bites Steve, Darren begs Crepsley for an antidote, which the vampire provides in exchange for Darren becoming his half-vampire (he’ll be able to walk around during the day) assistant. But Darren barely has time to settle into his new life with Cirque before Steve — bitter that Crepsley chose his friend instead of him — starts stirring up trouble with the Vampinese.
Based on the first of a 12-book series by Darren Shan, “The Vampire’s Assistant” has the unenviable task of setting a long and involved saga in motion while also trying to stand alone as a discrete adventure within the larger story. (The underappreciated “Golden Compass” had to deal with the same issues; go figure, “Vampire’s” director Paul Weitz is the brother of “Compass” director Chris Weitz.)
The script by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) is loaded with creepy atmospherics but indulges in a cheeky wit as well — when the newly-converted Darren asks Crepsley if he’ll be able to turn into a bat, the older vampire drily replies, “No. Because that’s bulls—t.” The one flaw in the writing is an 11th-hour moral that gets tacked on abruptly; it’s the sort of from-nowhere development that feels like the result of studio enforcement.
Slideshow: Fangs for the memories Weitz has cast the film well — Reilly and Hayek stand out, but second bananas like Frankie Faison and Willem Dafoe also have their moments — except for one crucial misstep: Chris Massoglia never makes Darren a particularly interesting character, and he’s outshone by everyone, especially Hutcherson, who would have been a much better choice for the lead. If there are “Cirque du Freak” sequels, it would behoove the filmmakers to cast a Darren who can successfully share the screen with Hutcherson’s villainous Steve.
It’s not entirely clear who the intended audience is for “The Vampire’s Assistant” — the salty language makes it inappropriate for the very young, while jaded older kids may find this mix of creepiness and comedy to be not edgy enough for their tastes. But if this clever and stylish hybrid is your bucket of blood, then you’ll certainly be clamoring for the further adventures of these bizarre and delightful freaks.
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