A textbook example of how trying to please everyone ends up pleasing no one, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, all stitches and seams and disparate parts. Based on the first three volumes of Darren Shan's 12-book series, the movie was intended to be a franchise launcher - a cross between Harry Potter and Twilight with a bit of comic-book pow and a smattering of gore thrown in to lure older teens. You can imagine how the Universal Pictures marketing department must have salivated over that pitch. How can it possibly miss, right?
But the finished film has been tinkered with and tweaked so thoroughly that it borders on the incomprehensible. The little that is good about The Vampire's Assistant, directed by the usually reliable Paul Weitz (In Good Company, About a Boy), gets lost in an overly crowded cast of supporting characters better suited to a TV series, some surprisingly cheesy CGI work and an uneven tone that feels like the result of constant studio tampering.
Most disappointing is the script, written by Weitz and Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), which sacrifices clarity and narrative momentum in order to set up the next chapter. With so much backstory to fill in and so many players to squeeze in, the film's protagonist, the gentle, good-natured Darren (Chris Massoglia) is never fully defined. He's just a sweet, ordinary kid who, in order to save the life of his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), agrees to become a "half-vampire'' servant for the pacifist bloodsucker Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) and join his traveling circus of freaks.
That decision costs Darren his parents and sister, who presume he committed suicide, but brings him a new family - a green-skinned snake boy (Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit), a bearded psychic (Salma Hayek), a deformed giant (Ken Watanabe) and an assortment of other creatures and monsters, most of whom welcome Darren warmly into their fold. There is also Willem Dafoe as a fellow freak/vampire, whose primary talent appears to be spouting reams of exposition wherever he goes.
The premise is rich with potential, but The Vampire's Assistant sacrifices its characters for the sake of dull exposition, including much business about a war between regular vampires who have learned to drink blood from humans without killing them and the more violent "vampaneze," who relish sucking their prey dry.
There's so much stuff to keep track of that the film's editing is unusually choppy, and the actors all seem distracted. The normally-resourceful Reilly does surprisingly little with his paternal vampire, while Massoglia excels only at depicting Darren's blandness. The film practically ignores the darker undertones of Darren's decision to give up his normal life - let's not forget about that tween demographic! - which would have given this weightless picture some heft.
All that distracting vampire-war business might have been better served in a separate film - there's a good reason why it took the books' author three volumes to tell the same tale - but The Vampire's Assistant has been built as a quasi-cliffhanger first, a stand-alone movie second. The crassness ends up sabotaging the entire enterprise. Like The Golden Compass, another failed start of a supposed series directed by Weitz's brother Chris, The Vampire's Assistant leaves you hanging for a sequel that will never arrive. The only way to find out what happens next, of course, will be to read the books. The movie may be a dud, but Darren Shan is a genius.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant opens in South Florida on Friday Oct. 23.