In the bizarre world of "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," there's a war brewing over, how to put this simply, "portion" control. It seems the truce between those who sip, leaving humans a little weaker but none the wiser, and those who guzzle, gluttons who leave death, destruction and no tip behind, has been on hold for a couple hundred years.
But those peaceful days are about to end in Paul Weitz's stab at vampire camp in "Cirque du Freak," a not quite deadly adaptation of the frothy fanged kids book series by Darren Shan. Interestingly, the lead character is a 16-year-old named Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia). Coincidence? I think not.
Darren's a good kid, makes good grades and seems to be taking a pass on the whole teen rebellion thing except for his delinquent best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson). That is, until the Cirque comes to town (cue ominous music).
Despite being told not to go, come evening Darren and Steve are there, claiming to be 21. How 16 is that?
There's a good mix of appropriately gross freaks from minor aberrations like Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit), who seems to have nothing more than a bad case of green psoriasis, to major freakishness like Corma Limbs (Jane Krakowski), who can regenerate body parts, which comes in handy when there's an angry werewolf around. But the real discovery of the night is Crepsley (John C. Reilly) and his performing pet spider, a big bright red and blue poisonous plush one named Octa, who blinks, bites and bounces around trying her best to look lethal.
Now here's the weird thing, Darren really likes spiders and Steve is obsessed with vampires and he's sure that Crepsley is one. Have they come to the right place or what? Soon there's an Octa heist, a bad spider bite, some DNA testing by a nasty fat man named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and Darren's having to make a really major life decision -- like should he become a half-vampire to get the spider-dote for Steve and fool his family into thinking he's dead? The answer, my friends, is yes, a quick death and a very long life are definitely in the cards for Darren.
The themes in "Cirque" are typical teenage ones -- feeling like a freak, unsure of who you are or what you want to be in life, ready to fall in love, kinda, especially when the monkey girl (Jessica Carlson) is so cute, and falling out with your best friend.
This is usually Weitz's sweet spot, having written "About a Boy" with such a lovely blend of sentiment and humor, and "In Good Company," an underrated relationship comedy starring Topher Grace, which he both wrote and directed. So it's a disappointment that "Cirque" isn't better.
The look of the film has a great, eerie Victorian storybook quality to it. The story and characters are mostly sized for the 8- to 10-year-old crowd. The action -- a lot of rough vampire-versus-vampaneze (the killer vamps) fighting, which entails limb tearing, head butting and spilled blood -- aims a little older. Meanwhile the dialogue is shooting for something akin to the campy cleverness of "Scream."
Unfortunately Weitz can't quite get a handle on what the film should be, despite teaming up with the talented Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") on the script. "Cirque" is a harmless bit of fluff with a very cool look, but there's just never enough bite.
'Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release