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Cirque du Freak: Engaging but overstuffed

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Based on a series of books for kids, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant would seem to be aimed at either those young viewers with an affinity for the Twilight franchise or perhaps at those young viewers seeking an alternative to the adventures of Bella and Edward. Either way, this PG-13 confection would seem to be geared primarily at the teen crowd, with adult attendance a passing afterthought. But older moviegoers who can recall the spate of like-minded horror flicks from the 1980s will find much to appreciate as well.

Those '80s efforts like Fright Night, Vamp and The Lost Boys placed teen protagonists in horrific situations and armed them with plenty of humor to go along with those wooden stakes. Like its predecessors, this film similarly mixes comedy with fantasy, and I'd be surprised if writer-director Chris Weitz and co-scripter Brian Helgeland hadn't studied those pictures before embarking on this project (on the other hand, similarities to 1932's classic Freaks and 1972's forgotten Vampire Circus were probably coincidental).

Here, the school-age hero is 14-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia, who even looks like '80s mainstay Ralph Macchio in certain shots), who, at the urging of his rebellious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), sneaks out to catch a one-night-only presentation by a traveling freak show. The lineup includes a snake boy (Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit) and a psychic who can sprout a beard at will (Salma Hayek), but it's spider-wrangler Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) who catches the boys' attention. Crepsley turns out to be a "good" vampire -- he dazes rather than kills humans, taking just enough blood for sustenance -- and while Steve gets rejected for having "bad" blood, Darren soon becomes the vampire's protégée and finds himself having to steer clear of the soul-sucking Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and an army of "bad" vampires.

Reilly hardly conjures up images of suave bloodsuckers like Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but his casting proves to be a real boon to the film, providing it with a central vampire whose wit is as sharp as his teeth. Beyond him, there's plenty to enjoy here -- too much, since the picture ultimately collapses under the weight of its busy story line and fails to adequately utilize its strong supporting cast (Hayek and Willem Dafoe as a dapper vampire especially could have used more screen time). Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant ends with all signs pointing to a sequel, but given its bloodless box office, it's safe to surmise that a stake has been driven through that particular course of action.

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