Anyone looking to kick off a teen fantasy franchise can draw several valuable lessons from the failure of Universal’s “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” the first (and likely the last) cinematic adaptation of the popular Brit neck-biter series. First, if you’re counting on a property’s built-in fan base, don’t stray too far from the source. Second, make sure the opening entry stands alone; there’s no point wasting energy to set up sequels that’ll never happen. Finally, like brother Chris (“The Golden Compass”), director Paul Weitz seems better suited to comedy than to big-budget make-believe.
Attempting to do for the vampire set what J.K. Rowling did for wizards, Darren Shan’s 12-book “Cirque du Freak” series tells the story of a young outsider inducted into a traveling freak show, where he becomes a half-vampire and learns to fit in among a motley bunch of semi-supernatural types. The film, adapted by helmer Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, focuses on just the first three volumes, unwisely treating the plot like an extended preview for more exciting adventures to follow.
Evidently, there’s a massive war brewing between the vampires (well-behaved bloodsuckers who’ve found a way to coexist with humans) and the more violent “Vampaneze.” Inter-species political strife is just about the last thing a young adult fantasy movie needs, and yet “The Vampire’s Assistant” treats such conflict with total seriousness, suggesting its two generic juvie leads are somehow destined to play pivotal roles in a cosmic power struggle.
The production puts far too much faith in the appeal of newcomer Chris Massoglia, who plays Darren Shan, a rule-abiding, good-grade-earning conformist with the shaggy coif and bland, gumdrop charm of your average Nickelodeon character. Potentially more interesting is his bad-influence best friend, Steve (talented teen star Josh Hutcherson). Steve is obsessed with vampires and flips out when Cirque du Freak comes to town for a one-night-only performance, dragging Chris along for a night of twisted-cool spectacle.
During the show, Steve recognizes fiery-haired emcee Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) from one of his many books on the undead, ducking backstage afterward to see if the larger-than-life entertainer will turn him into a vampire, too. That’s pretty much the last remotely plausible decision by any character in the film: Why does Darren fake his death and become a vampire if that’s Steve’s dream? Why does Steve stick a videogame system in Darren’s coffin if he thinks his friend is really dead? And what could possibly motivate the pair to get mixed up on opposite sides of the great Vampaneze conflict?
“The Vampire’s Assistant” shows all the signs of being reworked into oblivion, with dead-end narrative threads and characters who disappear from its sprawling, unwieldy ensemble (including Salma Hayek, Patrick Fugit, Willem Dafoe and half a dozen others). Weitz has clearly taken on more than he can handle here, and the nuanced attention to character evident in “About a Boy” and “In Good Company” is the first thing to suffer.
The story’s rich milieu echoes that of Disney’s dark “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” though it’s hard to imagine today’s kids harboring fantasies of running away with the circus, and Weitz never convincingly sells the character’s stir-crazy small-town anxiety anyway. There’s a vague sense of how foreign and exciting it might be to become a vampire, with salty language and revisionist vampire humor thrown in to make the film feel subversive, but Darren’s coming of age among the undead carries the same lame lessons as teenybopper TV: “It’s not about what you are; it’s about who you are.”
Pic is well shot but poorly edited, with the interesting bits of detail (namely, anything to do with the Cirque du Freak) compressed into uneven montages. Shan’s source material follows the same archetype used throughout young-adult adventure movies, whether it’s Luke Skywalker going off to be a Jedi or Spider-Man eager to explore his new superpowers, but “The Vampire’s Assistant” is too busy making impossible claims about just how spectacular its sequels will be to serve up a self-contained story with a satisfying finale.