Thursday, October 22, 2009

Freaks, vampires and tweens. Oh my!

Chris Massoglia and John C. Reilly get freaky.

Say what? You're telling me that a typical high school kid can become a half vampire, a condition that gives him access to some vampire powers, but still allows him to venture out during daylight? You're also telling me that our hero falls for a girl with a monkey tail, and that there are good vampires -- they sip a bit of blood and move on -- and bad vampires -- they go for the jugular?

Of course, you're not telling me any of this, but the new movie Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant did exactly that and more. Much more. Glutted with freaks and geeks, Cirque du Freak tells part of the story that derives from a series by author Darren Shan. And if all this sounds like one of the worst movies you've ever seen, you're a little off base. Cirque du Freak starts well enough, but eventually wears out its welcome, resorting to violent clashes that dump the movie into a creatively exhausted heap.

The story centers on Darren (Massoglia), a straight-arrow high school student. Darren's best friend (Josh Hutcherson) is more rebellious and angry, but it's Darren who's turned into a half vampire, a transformation that has something to do with his destiny. That's with a capital "D."

John C. Reilly appears as Larten Crepsley, a vampire who takes Darren under wing -- or is it under fang. I guess it's under wing because these vampires don't seem to have fangs.

If all this weren't enough, the script sets up a murky conflict. The evil Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and has pal Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson) try to goad Crepsley into a war between the good and bad vampires. The bad vampires are known as the Vampanese, a name I rather like. Fun to say, isn't it?

Sometimes both kinds of vampires meet at the campsite of a traveling freak show, where Crepsely and his charge seek refuge. The carnival has been declared neutral territory by its ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe.)

I can't imagine that anyone has been longing to see what Salma Hayek looks like with a beard, but the movie affords the curious just such opportunity. She plays a hormonally challenged freak who also happens to be Crepsley's love interest. Willem Dafoe appears briefly and superfluously. The only truly interesting performance is given by O'Reilly. His Crespley is too world weary to be especially menacing but not too tired to be arch.

I'm betting that the 200-year-old Crespley, if given a half a chance, might have nasty things to say about this strangely excessive contraption, which -- by the end -- seems to exist mostly to set up a series of sequels. I may pass. I didn't hate watching Cirque du Freak, but it certainly didn't make me hungry for more.

Note: I've read that Shan's books are aimed squarely at tweens, but I noticed lots of younger children at a preview screening. The level of violence and profanity may be mild by R-rated standards, but this one seems questionable for little ones. The movie is rated PG-13.

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