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MOVIE REVIEW

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

‘Cirque du Freak’ is a pale version of vampire tale

John C. Reilly (with Salma Hayek) plays a vampire who stars in a mysterious freak show. John C. Reilly (with Salma Hayek) plays a vampire who stars in a mysterious freak show. (David Lee/Universal Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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So many vampires are crawling around movies and TV at the moment that any new kid on the block is forced to segment by age, gender, genre, and possibly political affiliation. If the “Twilight’’ series is aimed at adolescent girls whose hearts go arrhythmic at the thought of being ravaged by Edward Cullen, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant’’ is what a teenage boy might crave in a bloodsucker movie. Which is, basically, Bill and Ted’s Night of the Living Undead.

There’s a lot of talent behind this first-strike adaptation of the popular young-adult book series by Darren Shan, but not, unfortunately, where it counts. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland gave us “L.A. Confidential’’ and director Paul Weitz gave us “American Pie’’ and “About a Boy.’’ The supporting cast runs wide and deep, from Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock’’) as a limb-regenerating sideshow vixen to Willem Dafoe as a vampire dandy.

None of which matters when your lead actor is a dud. As Darren, the high school hero who becomes apprentice to a vampire and gets drawn into a centuries-old feud, Chris Massoglia is almost wholly charisma-free, a handsome, hesitant two-by-four who makes you appreciate the rich thespian skills of Daniel Radcliffe. Casting an unknown is always a gamble. This time the house wins.

The aggravating part is that Josh Hutcherson, a young actor of actual talent, is stuck in the second-banana role of Steve, Darren’s bad-boy best friend. The two sneak out to a mysterious freak show in which the star attraction is a vampire named Larten Crepsley, played by character actor John C. Reilly in a rare and welcome lead role. After a few plot complications, Darren is chosen as Crepsley’s right-hand man and becomes a “half-vampire,’’ which the movie more or less views as dropping out of school for a real job.

There’s some nonsense about a war between two tribes of bloodsuckers - Crepsley belongs to the good guys, who sedate and sip rather than butcher their prey - but the pleasures of “Cirque du Freak’’ are in the snappy dialogue and enthusiastic secondary performances. Dafoe has only two scenes but he makes them count as a prissy little vampire - the Franklin Pangborn of the undead. Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous’’) plays a slithery slacker snake-boy, Salma Hayek gets to grow a computer-generated beard, and newcomer Jessica Carlson makes a very fetching monkey-girl love interest.

Reilly gives it his all, and he’s both very enjoyable and about as scary as a stubbed toe. It’s not the actor’s fault he’s a big old teddy bear, and, anyway, that fits the PG-13 marketing plan of “Cirque du Freak,’’ a movie that breaks the hero’s neck and puts him temporarily six feet under while remaining as safe as a trip to the mall. Will there be a sequel, a “Cirque du Freak: Legend of the Viable Franchise’’? Only if the filmmakers can find a lead actor who’s certifiably among the living.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

CIRQUE DU FREAK: The Vampire’s Assistant Directed by: Paul Weitz

Written by: Brian Helgeland, based on the books by Darren Shan

Starring: Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Jessica Carlson

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 108 minutes

Rating: PG-13 (sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language)

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