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Madame Truska (Salma Hayek) takes the stage in Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. In the fantasy-adventure, one teen will vanish from the safety of a boring existence and fulfill his destiny in a place drawn from nightmares.

Photo Credit: David Lee / Univer/Copyright: © 2009 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

2 out of 4 stars


Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

  • Directed by Paul Weitz
  • Written by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland
  • Starring Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe and Salma Hayek
  • Classification: PG

There's a quiet, knowing interlude in Zombieland in which the film's heroes, weary from battling the undead, exchange wounded sighs. "Zombieland is difficult," one says. "Growing up is difficult," the other responds. In other words, growing up is Zombieland, an idea that took hold in pop culture back when Buffy the Vampire Slayer enrolled in Sunnydale High on TV in 1997.

Since Buffy , variations of the adolescence-is-a-freak-show theme have appeared in Harry Potter,Spiderman,X-Men and Twilight . Now there's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant , the story of a slightly boring straight-A high school student, Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia).

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We're never convinced that Darren is the perfect preppie, however. And when his friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) asks if he wants to ditch homework and take in a travelling carnival, Darren is right there. Soon, they're both digging the bosomy bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and her boyfriend, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a 200-year-old vampire going through a midlife crisis.

Crepsley needs an assistant, someone to do errands and help him battle the Vampire tribe's archrivals, the relentless Vampaneze. Before long, Darren leaves home and high school to work for Crepsley, making shy romantic overtures at a girl (Jessica Carlson) with a bullwhip tail coiled in the back of her pants.

Cirque du Freak spends too much time gawking at what it sees as sideshow attractions. At one point, the girl advises Darren not to judge people by the colour of their scales or length of their tail. "It's not about what you are, but who you are," she says.

That's a fine thought, but the film never follows that advice. We never get under the skin of anyone here. Freaks never become characters. They're objects of derision. It's not even clear why actors like Willem Dafoe and Orlando Jones are in the movie. Perhaps they'll get something to do in Cirque du Freaks 's planned sequel.

Will a sequel will ever get shot? Cirque du Freaks doesn't have the feel of a franchise-maker. Except for Hayek, there's nothing to ooh or ahh at here. No big, CGI scenes for us to marvel at. Reilly, decked out in an orange Beethoven fright wig, makes a droll, sashaying vampire, but the teenage players are a drab lot. Even the endless fight scenes between the Vampires and Vampeneze lack punch.

More than anything, the film lacks a rapport with its audience. Buffy , Twilight and the best Harry Potters were alert to the fears and suppressed longings of adolescents. Slayers, vampires and wizards - freaks! - were viewed with humour and sympathy. In the latest neck-biter from Universal, freak is an unfriendly catcall.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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