Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Apparently, in addition to the usual travails of being a teenager, these days an adolescent has to worry about vampires. It's only fair, I suppose. Vampires have their own worries in these complicated times. Used to be, a vampire could get by biting a few necks now and then. Nowadays, there are vampire wars. There's the neophyte Good vampires (the unkilling undead) who just want to get along with humans, versus your classic Bad vampires, who view humanity as an A+ buffet (or A negative, if your tastes run that way). In that vein, there's *True Blood* (my personal vampire addiction) and the Twilight saga, and now Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, the first movie adapted from Darren Shan's twelve-book series Cirque du Freak: The Darren Shan Saga. Yep, an Irish bloke named Darren Shan wrote a young adult book series about a kid named... Darren Shan. Cirque du Freak, the movie, comes across like *Twilight* meets *Harry Potter*, with all kinds of adolescent angst amidst the supernatural goings-on, but true to its name, Cirque du Freak is just a little more freaky.

Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) is your typical high school kid: a good student with loving (if somewhat overbearing) parents, and a troublemaking best friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Darren is obsessed with spiders; Steve is way into vampires. The two of them sneak out one night and go to a mysterious show, the Cirque du Freak. One thing leads to another, and Darren is talked into becoming a vampire by Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a somewhat world-weary old vampire. Why does Crepsley want Darren to become a vampire? That's one thing this exposition-heavy movie never quite gets around to explaining. Darren's only half-vampire, anyway -- he can still go out in the daytime. He doesn't want to drink blood, so his various vampire powers are rather dim, too. Add an identity crisis and picky eating to the travails of half-vampire teen life.

There's a villain named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who is quite pale and tubby and up to no good. He is trying to instigate a war between the good vampires (like Crepsley) and the bad vampires, known as the Vampaneze. Mr. Tiny recruits Darren's buddy Steve to the side of the Vampaneze, which, needless to say, eventually leads to a Darren and Steve showdown. The showdown, although it is the culmination of this movie, doesn't resolve anything in the big picture, in which the long simmering vampire war continues to bubble. And the big picture -- in which dozens of books become dozens of movies -- is what Cirque du Freak is really about.

There's much to like about Cirque du Freak. It's colorful and kind of goofy around the edges, campy and comical and mildly outré. The cast and characters are a lot of fun: Willem Dafoe (looking quite undead) is fellow vampire Gavner Purl. Crepsley is dating the freakshow's va-va-voom bearded lady (Salma Hayek). Patrick Fugit is Evra, a green-skinned snake boy who just wants to be an indie rocker. Monkey Girl Rebecca (Jessica Carlson) is a possible love interest for Darren. There are all manner of oddballs in the Cirque: a dude with two stomachs, a dude with *no* stomach, a wolfman, a woman with big teeth...

But the movie quickly gets bogged down in the need to explain, and explain, and explain. There is clearly a very elaborate and complicated story within the Cirque du Freak saga about the Vampires and Vampaneze, and the mysterious Mr. Tiny's preoccupation with provoking a war. The role of the circus in all this is rather vague. Cirque du Freak, directed by Paul Weitz, and cowritten by Weitz and Brian Helgeland, goes to great trouble to explain the backstory without giving away too much of the mystery. The result is a movie that's all exposition and set-up, signifying practically nothing because it's just a big tease, a prologue for a sequel that hasn't been made yet. It explains everything and nothing, but not in some enigmatic, brain-tickling Zen kind of way. The goal, I suppose, is to leave the audience craving more. Cirque du Freak promises to satisfy that craving, to tell a good, complicated, compelling story in the future, but there are only hints here that this would-be franchise can deliver on that promise.