Everybody wants a bite of the vampire craze - Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is no exception. It's also unexceptional, a bloodless film more dead than undead.
Based on a series of books by British writer Darren Shan that apparently were written for teens, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is also obviously Universal's hail-Mary effort at a series that can be as popular as the Twilight spawn. So this film has the feel of an opening salvo, a first chapter rather than a complete story. While it doesn't say "To be continued" at the end, it might as well - except the probable audience's response may turn out to be, "Why bother?"
The film was written and directed by Paul Weitz, but it has little of the wit, surprise or sense of passion that the material calls for. Despite elaborate costumes, make-up and computer effects, it's like a beautifully customized muscle car that can't shift out of neutral (except, perhaps, to go in reverse).
The most serious problem is the casting of the central role. Chris Massoglia plays Darren, a clean-cut honor student with a juvenile-delinquent pal named Steve (Josh Hutcherson) for a best friend. The movie is Darren's story - the whole series of books is told in the first person by Shan, as though it were true. But Massoglia spends the whole movie with a blank expression on his face: lips parted just enough to make him look like a mouth-breather, perhaps, or a perplexed carp.
To save his friend Steve, Darren must indenture himself to a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). That's an unfortunate bit of nomenclature because a) no two characters pronounce the name the same way (it frequently comes out "Crespley") and b) it sounds a lot like "crapley."
Vampires are supposed to be erotically dangerous figures, but not in this film. Reilly is a resourceful actor but he's no one's idea of a hunk, with that big melon of a head and potato nose. Brooding and seductive are also a stretch for him, though Reilly works hard at it.
The plot, such as it is, deals with a crumbling truce between the race of vampires and the more sinister "vampinese," abetted by a corpulent bald figure known as Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), an Uncle Fester clone with magic powers. Darren's allegiance hangs in the balance but, really, who cares?
The vampire Crepsley is part of a traveling sideshow, Cirque du Freak, for reasons that are never really explained. Actors such as Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Jane Krakowski and Orlando Jones pop up as attractions in the freak show without much to do other than act as vehicles for visual effects.
Neither funny nor scary nor thrilling nor romantic nor, really, much of anything other than a product reel for the last visual-effects technology, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant has to count on an audience too indiscriminate of taste to care - and hope they'll come back for a second helping later on. Perhaps they can tap into the Transformers crowd.
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