October 29, 2009

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Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (PG-13)
Two young teens discover the dangerous world of vampires and other odd, magical beings in Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, a movie for the middle schoolers who just can’t get behind all that mushy love stuff in Twilight.

Boys, I think they’re called.

Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a goody two-shoes and Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is his delinquent best friend. Seeking adventure, Steve, and Darren go to a one-night performance of the traveling Cirque Du Freak, a freak show that’s come to a theater in their town. They are dazzled by a human skeleton (Orlando Jones), the giant-foreheaded ringmaster (Ken Watanabe), a fortune-telling bearded woman (Salma Hayek), a rock-guitar-playing snake boy (Patrick Fugit) and Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a man whose act revolves around a large, colorful poisonous spider.

I recognize that freak, Steve says when he sees Crepsley, he’s a vampire. Who cares about the vampire, thinks the arachnid-loving Darren, check out that spider. After the show, each boy tries to get a better look at the thing that fascinates him. Steve tries unsuccessfully to get Crepsley to turn him into a vampire; Darren is a little bit more successful at making off with the vampire’s spider. Steve is accidentally bitten by the creature and soon Darren is faced with a choice — watch his best friend die or allow himself to be turned into a half vampire to become Crepsley’s assistant in exchange for the antidote to save Steve. Once Darren enters the world of the vampires, however, he finds his sacrifice is much greater than he originally realized. He must leave his friends and family and join the freaks. And he finds himself in a war between the vampires (those who simply sip a little blood but leave their human donors alive) and the vampense (the full-on sucking-and-draining kind of vampire).

Will the formerly normal and popular Darren learn to live with outsiders? Will the angry Steve forgive his friend for becoming the thing he most wanted to become? Does Willem Dafoe (who shows up for a few scenes as Crepsley’s friend and fellow vampire) have the words “has fangs, will travel” on his résumé?

I’m sure most people consider this one of the movie’s flaws, but John C. Reilly is a hilarious vampire. Unlike your standard TV and movie vampire, he isn’t a bit sexy. He’s from the lumpy, downsized part of the vampire world, making due with his underemployment and trying to find ways to keep his bearded, psychic girlfriend happy. To get you to do his bidding, he isn’t going to bewitch you, he’s going to ask you in an aggravated voice. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to see Crepsley as the movie’s great comic relief but he is and between him, the rubberfaced Willem Dafoe, the massive Ken Watanabe and the spacey Salma Hayek, the adults of this movie are fascinating and entertaining to watch.

The problem, sadly, is the kids. Perhaps Steve’s role is greater and more difficult as the stories go on; perhaps this is why the more talented young actor, Josh Hutcherson, was given the role. But unfortunately for this movie, here the action is centered on Chris Massoglia, a young actor so generic that it is actually difficult to focus your attention on him. He is a ready-made tertiary character and a forgettable main character. The result is that Hutcherson stands out all the more — not a great thing when the actor is already chewing the scenery to prove that he’s Evil. And then there’s unnecessary love interest Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), who you keep expecting to do something — anything — but who is just kinda there.

Not having read the books from which this movie was adapted I don’t know for sure but I suspect that caring about that trio of kids is kind of key to the story arc. That’s really too bad — I have no interest in watching them work out their metaphors for teenage angst with magic powers and monkey tales but I’d be happy to watch the Reilly and Dafoe show all day long. Since everything about the movie threatens a sequel, I hope someone finds a way to interesting up the central characters before we hit this series’ New Moon phase. C

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some absolutely South Parkian swearing. Directed by Paul Weitz and written by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland (from the series of books by Darren Shan), Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.