Cirque du Freak red“Wanna become a vampire?” Larten (John C. Reilly) asks his soon-to-be apprentice Darren (Chris Massoglia), a clean-cut teen who sneaks out of his house one fateful evening to see a travelling freak show and ends up growing fangs and napping in coffins because of it. “It’s a lonely life, but there’s lots of it.”

Indeed; there has certainly been lots of it. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is the latest in a recent resurgence of vampire stories to have sunk their fangs into popular culture – including the Twilight books and their screen adaptations, TV’s True Blood and the Vampire Diaries, and films such as Daybreakers and Lesbian Vampire Killers.

Similar to Daybreakers, there are two breeds of vampires in Cirque du Freak though the difference this time around is ideological, not biological. Vampires drink blood but generally don’t kill, while the “vampineze” are remorseless oogie-boogie murderers.

The trouble starts when Darren and best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) nick off to the aforementioned freak show, where they witness all manner of gasp-splutter-egad! human perversities. There are pint-sized hoody-clad ghoulish dwarves, vampire John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek with a beard (yup – still hot) and a giant Ken Watanabe with a chunky forehead, among others.

Finding himself in a tight spot after pilfering a mutant super spider (natch) Darren is asked to cut a deal: in order to save his friend’s life he must become Larten’s half-vamp assistant, which means he will have most of the vampire powers but can walk around in sunlight. Cheating the rules, perhaps, but at least the writers bothered to address the UV aversion thing, unlike a certain series adored by Twi-Hards. Characters live in a part of the world that receives very little sunlight? Puh-lease.

Unlike Twilight the dialogue and acting in Cirque de Freak is passable, often entertaining. Chris Massoglia is well-cast in the lead role, though a couple of the supporting performances are annoyingly hammy and Willem Dafoe’s welcome presence is blink-and-you-miss-it.

Adapted from a bestseller by author Darren Shan, the film’s first half sets a cracking pace as director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) unfolds an affable twist on the superhero-is-born plotline in which the protag breaks free of his routine life, grapples with new-found abilities then finds acceptance among fellow freaks. Not riveting viewing but it bangs along to a sassy beat, and the first act especially feels a bit too good to be true – sadly, because it is.

Screwy subplots involving warring vampires, feuding best friends, longing to return to family and an obligatory love interest convolute the story and turn it into a slippery mess of been-there-done-that. A rushed action finale seems more concerned with flagging possible future instalments than resolving the story.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant’s Australian theatrical release date: March 11, 2010.