- The Washington Times - Friday, October 23, 2009

Considering that “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is little more than a melange of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” with a dash of the children’s horror series “Goosebumps,” it is far, far more entertaining a movie than it has any right to be.

Best friends Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson) are a little odd: Darren’s really into spiders, and Steve’s really into vampires. They’re also on divergent paths, as Darren’s a straight-A goody-two-shoes while Steve is spiraling into delinquency.

Defying the orders of his parents to stay away from Steve, Darren heads out with his friend to the Cirque du Freak, a traveling sideshow featuring honest-to-goodness freaks. One of those freaks isn’t just a smooth-talking vaudevillian with a dancing spider: He’s also a vampire.

Needless to say, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) piques Steve’s interest when he recognizes the bloodsucker from one of his books on vampires. Confronting Crepsley after the show, Steve demands to be turned only to be denied: Vampires aren’t allowed to turn children, it seems, and his blood tastes evil anyway.

Instead, Darren falls under Crepsley’s sway after he makes a deal with the vampire to save a loved one. Crepsley teaches him the tricks of the vampiring trade and explains that there there is a war under way between vampires (who drink blood from humans but do not kill them) and vampaneze (who kill the humans they drink from).

Yes, that’s a lot of exposition, and this review only scratches the plot’s surface. As with most opening chapters in a series, “The Vampire’s Assistant” has to introduce myriad characters, lay out the plot, follow that with another talky diversion, add in a couple more scenes explaining things — … it’s a little bit trying at times. Regardless, this still manages to be a surprisingly fun movie.

“Cirque du Freak’s” strengths — its humor, its dark and mischievous tone — can be credited to the movie’s amazing cast, headlined by the ever-reliable John C. Reilly, whose turn here is funny, tender and surprisingly powerful.

Mr. Reilly’s screen presence absolutely dwarfs that of his child co-star, Mr. Massoglia. It’s almost painful watching Mr. Reilly try to draw something extra out of his youthful co-star, who’s dreadful performance is all the more conspicuous thanks to the superior surrounding ensemble: In addition to Mr. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek, Frankie Faison and Willem Dafoe all pop up.

The cast strikes just the right balance between camp and seriousness to keep the movie from devolving into outright farce or melodrama. It’s obvious that everyone is having a fine time on set, and that joy translates into the performances.

TITLE: “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”
RATING: PG-13 (intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language)
CREDITS: Directed by Paul Weitz, written by Mr. Weitz and Brian Helgeland
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.thevampiresassistant.net/

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