Pop Culture

‘Vampire’s Assistant’ juggles chills, chuckles

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 Photos

    Image: Dracula

    Fangs for the memories

    From the silent classic "Nosferatu" to the romantic chiller "Twilight," screen vampires seem to just keep coming back.

  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    The Vampire Diaries

    Vampires are hard to kill, as everyone knows, and the current bumper crop of entertainment featuring the baleful bloodsuckers shows they're as popular today as when the silent shocker "Nosferatu" first gave filmgoers the willies back in 1922. The 2009 TV series "The Vampire Diaries" is based on the book series of the same name by L.J. Smith. In it two vampire brothers Stefan and Damon - one good, one evil - are at war for Elena Gilbert, a teenager who looks exactly like a woman both brothers loved more than a century ago. Who will win Elena's heart? And how safe are the residents of Mystic Falls?

    CW / CW
  • Image:

    Fangs for the memories

    of

    Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

    "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" (2009) is based on the popular fantasty-adventure book series by Darren Shan. The film tells the story of teenager Darren Shan played by Chris Massoglia, whose life changes after he stumbles upon a traveling freak show and gets turned into a bloodthirsty creature by a vampire named Larten Crepsley portrayed by John C. Reilly.

    Universal Pictures via AP / Universal Pictures via AP
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Twilight

    "Twilight" (2008) is based on the young adult vampire-romance book series by Stephenie Meyer. The film tells the story of a teen, played by Kristen Stewart, whose heart is captured by a vampire, portrayed by Robert Pattinson. The two struggle to manage their forbidden love affair when a new vampire makes it his quest to hunt her down for her blood.

    Summit Entertainment / Summit Entertainment
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    True Blood

    "True Blood" is an HBO drama series based on the "Sookie Stackhouse" book series by Charlaine Harris. In it, vampires and humans co-exist in Bon Temps, a small Louisiana town. Anna Paquin plays Sookie, a telepathic waitress who falls in love with a vampire played by Stephen Moyer, shown here.

    HBO / HBO
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Van Helsing

    Starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, "Van Helsing" is based on the character Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." The 2004 film mashes together characters and plotlines from the film "The Wolf Man" and the novel "Frankenstein." In it, Van Helsing is a monster hunter who is sent to Transylvania to destroy Dracula.

    Universal Studios / Universal Studios
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Underworld

    In the 2003 film "Underworld," a beautiful vampire warrior, played by Kate Beckinsale, is caught in a war between the vampire and werewolf races. She hates werewolves, but falls in love with a human who is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one of them.

    Sony / Sony
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Blade

    Inspired by a Marvel Comics character, "Blade" (1998) is the story of a half-vampire, half-human superhero, played by Wesley Snipes, who battles Frost, a vampire who aims to enslave humanity. Two sequels, "Blade II" and "Blade: Trinity," were produced after the film's success.

    New Line Cinema via Everett Collection / New Line Cinema via Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    The 1997-2003 TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was a cult hit spun off from a much less successful 1992 film of the same name. The show starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, a "slayer" who battles vampires and demons.

    20th Century Fox via Everett Collection / 20th Century Fox via Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Interview with the Vampire

    With an all-star cast including Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and a young Kirsten Dunst, "Interview with the Vampire" was a box-office hit in 1994. Based on the 1976 novel by Anne Rice, it involves a vampire who tells his life's tale of love and loneliness.

    Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Bram Stoker's Dracula

    From Francis Ford Coppola, director of the "Godfather" films, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992) follows the count from Transylvania to London to find a young woman who is the double of the love he lost centuries earlier. The film starred Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    The Lost Boys

    In the teen vampire horror/comedy flick "The Lost Boys" (1987), a group of teenage vampires attempts to recruit a new member, who doesn't know he's getting up to his neck in trouble. Among the stars are Jason Patric, Corey Haim and Kiefer Sutherland -- all in over-the-top 80s hairdos.

    Warner Bros. via Everett Collection / Warner Bros. via Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    The Hunger

    David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve portrayed undead lovers who fit quite well into New York City's goth scene in this highly stylized 1983 horror film. But they find that even vampires have romantic issues when Bowie's character begins aging while Deneuve's does not.

    MGM via Everett Collection / MGM via Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Salem's Lot

    Stephen King's best-selling 1975 novel about a small Maine town that gradually becomes infested with vampires became a hit TV miniseries in 1979. It was adapted for television a second time in 2004.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Love at First Bite

    George Hamilton was a fading leading man known mainly for having dated LBJ's daughter Lynda Bird Johnson when he revivified his career with this 1979 comedy. In it, Dracula is exiled from Romania by the Communists, and winds up disco dancing in New York City.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Dracula (1979)

    Befitting the swinging '70s, Frank Langella gave the undead count a highly sensual interpretation, drawing critical acclaim but only modest box office. Laurence Olivier costarred as Dracula's archenemy, vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing.

    Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Blacula

    The heyday of "blaxploitation" films aimed at African-American audiences brought this 1972 horror film starring William Marshall as an African prince who was turned into a vampire by Dracula himself, then released from his coffin to wreak havoc in modern Los Angeles. Marshall reprised the role in the 1973 sequel "Scream Blacula Scream."

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Dark Shadows

    The gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" became an overnight sensation six months into its five-year ABC run when a new character was introduced: vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid. The show became a cult hit, and Frid continued to appear at fan conventions decades after the series ended in 1971.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Horror of Dracula

    In 1958, Britain's Hammer Film Productions revived the Dracula franchise with a graphic new version of Stoker's novel starring the imposing London-born actor Christopher Lee. The film was a hit, generating a series of sequels featuring Lee.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Dracula (1931)

    Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi played Dracula on Broadway before reprising the role in Tod Browning's iconic 1931 film, in which he uttered the immortal line, "I never drink ... wine."

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Fangs for the memories

    of

    Nosferatu

    Screen vampires have thrilled and chilled as far back as "Nosferatu" F.W. Murnaus 1922 silent classic. The German film was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," but because it was unauthorized, the characters names were changed.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection

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.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .

TOP