Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is sort of a Twilight-lite. It's about vampires and it's about teenagers. But where Twilight vamps down Romance Novel Road, Freak, based on Darren Shan's novels, is a lark, and in this case, the laughs are intentional.
The movie's big drawback is that it isn't silly enough.
Chris Massoglia is Darren, a good kid with good parents but a boy under the influence of the classmate his parents call "that damned Steve" (Josh Hutcherson). Steve is a class-cutting, vandalizing punk who leads Darren away from "the path to a happy, productive life," or so the parents warn.
Darren should have listened, because when a strange Euro-limo passes through town dropping fliers for "The world's greatest freak show," Steve insists they go. Mixed up with the bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), there's a real live vampire.
Steve recognizes Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) from his vampire books and is anxious to escape his miserable life by joining the undead. But the guy whose "destiny" it is to join the vampires in their war with the murderous Vampanese is Darren.
Director Paul Weitz (In Good Company) and writer Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) go for something like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer goof on teens dealing with issues of eternal life/eternal damnation. The dialogue lacks the wit of the visuals — chasing a vampire's trained spider through school is a highlight.
Reilly is well cast as a playful, seen-it-all blood-sucker who explains what awaits Darren if the kid chooses to earn his fangs: "It's a lonely life, but there's lots of it."
A plumped-up Michael Cerveris from TV's Fringe makes a dandy fey villain, the one playing vampires against one another. The kids aren't bad, with freak-show member Rebecca (Jessica Carlson) providing the coy teen love interest.
But despite some amusing scenes and "rules" for this vampire world, the script never sinks its teeth into the Cirque freaks and never once works up a decent fright. This Assistant could use more on-the-job training.