MOVIES: 'Vampire's Assistant' lacks bite

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (PG-13)

1 out of 4 stars

If a humorless Tim Burton was desperate for work and deathly afraid to offend anyone he might have made this movie. Possessing all the danger and edge of an episode of "Goosebumps" and displaying the dramatic depth of an after-school TV special, the laboriously titled "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" makes the tame "Twilight" look like "Nosferatu" by comparison.

With the success of "Twilight" (and to a lesser extent the cable show "True Blood") the market for young adult vampire movies has exploded and in its wake left open the door for the inevitable cash-in. Let's hope against hope this movie marks the genre's all-time low-point, performs poorly at the box office and squashes any ideas regarding a possible franchise.

Condensing the first three of writer Darren Shan's 12 eponymously titled novels, director Paul Weitz and co-writer Brian Helgeland's screenplay is a most shoddy and brazen example of Hollywood's all too frequent propensity of putting the cart before the horse.

Instead of making a movie that can stand on its own (like "Twilight"), Weitz's film acts as an overlong plot summary reel of the rest of the books. While the two main characters are given an acceptable amount of fleshed-out back story, most of the two dozen others are introduced and quickly rushed to the sidelines. Sadly, most of these secondary and supporting characters are interesting enough (in the right hands) to warrant their own films.

Clearly modeled after Anne Rice's Lestat, principal freak/vampire Crepsley (John C. Reilly) is a kinder, gentler blood-sucker. Like the vamps in "True Blood," Crepsley has discovered a way to get his fix without killing humans. By doing so Crepsley avoids raising the ire of those pesky people who take offense at being slaughtered. Crepsley is nothing if not a smart marketer and self-preservationist.

To Crepsley's chagrin, there are still vampires roaming the Earth determined to do things the old-fashioned way. They are the "Vampaneze" and are led by Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who is about as imposing as his name suggests and looks like a bloated, barely undead version of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil.

Mr. Tiny and Crepsley lock horns over the future of Darren (the too white bread Chris Massoglia), a straight-arrow honor student with an obsession for spiders. Darren is sort of like Neo from "The Matrix," in that he is "the One" but doesn't know it yet. Darren's juvenile delinquent soon-to-be-ex-best-friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is consumed with becoming a vampire, but has "bad blood," whatever that means. Ignored by Crepsley, Steve is taken in by Mr. Tiny who recognizes him only as a disposable pawn.

Without probably realizing it or wanting to, Weitz takes what could have been truly creepy and turned it into unintentional camp. Accompanied by Stephen Trask's Danny Elfman-flavored backing score, Weitz's movie plays out more like a kid-friendly version of "Beetlejuice" than a serious vampire flick. Fans of Shan's books are going to be supremely disappointed with this adaptation and vampire enthusiasts will scream bloody murder at the total lack of spatter and gore. Nothing in this film gets close to being remotely scary.

If Weitz and Universal Studios are real lucky, they'll rope in curious family audiences looking for a mild Halloween diversion. Everyone else should stay far, far away. (Universal)