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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Most boys go through a phase where they're fascinated with the bizarre, whether it's Bigfoot (as it was when I was a kid) or UFOs or ghosts or whatever. Why this happens could probably be explained by a multitude of psychological theories, but they scarcely matter; what counts is that boys will almost always be drawn to something creepy or unexplained. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant - based on the best-selling young adult novels by Darren Shan - starts off exploiting this very idea, and we in the audience gear up for fun, only to be let down when the story veers off into a different, far less interesting direction.

Darren (Chris Massolgia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson) are high school best friends. Neither of them really feel like they fit in, although Darren is probably more apt to try. While playing hooky one day, a purple limousine drives by in front of them, and a flyer is dropped from one window. It announces the arrival in town of a freak show. The boys decide to check it out. They arrive at a rundown old theater, where they're treated to a show comprised of deformed people, giants, a bearded lady (Salma Hayek), and a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) who owns a trained multi-colored tarantula. After the show, the spider-obsessed Darren steals Crepsley's spider and takes it to school, where it bites Steve. He then begs Crepsley to provide the antidote that will spare his friend's life. The vampire agrees, but only on the condition that Darren be turned into a "half-vampire" and serve as his assistant. Darren reluctantly agrees, only to discover that Steve, who has long fantasized about being a vampire, resents the fact that he wasn't the one to be turned.

All this happens in roughly the first half hour of The Vampire's Assistant. These early scenes are terrific, as Darren and Steve go to the freak show and slowly realize that the dangerous vibe is more than just an act for show. Some of the freaks themselves are suitably interesting. Orlando Jones plays a guy who's missing his sides, while Jane Krakowski is a woman who can sever a limb, then grow it right back. The early part of the movie has a sense of playfulness and fun as we discover all these strange beings along with our heroes.

Had the film stayed along those lines, it would have been a lot more enjoyable than it ultimately is. Instead, once Darren becomes Crepsley's assistant, the plot moves away from the freaks and into something else altogether. Crepsley is a "good vampire" who refuses to kill people; he simply knocks them unconscious, drinks a few sips of blood, and lets them carry on none the worse for wear. His people are engaged in a centuries-old feud with the "Vampanese" - i.e. the "bad vampires" who don't think twice about taking lives. Once Steve falls into their midst, the about-to-explode rivalry between the camps becomes very personal.

I'm sorry, but this whole "battle between the vampires" has been done to death, in everything from the Underworld pictures to Twilight. Perhaps the premise could work again with a fresh angle, but The Vampire's Assistant doesn't have one. It essentially just goes through the motions. For that reason, the longer it went on, the more impatient I became. By the 90-minute mark, I was almost depressingly bored.

It doesn't help that the film never really establishes any of the characters in detail. The villains that Crepsley is fighting are never really introduced properly; we don't understand exactly who they are or where this feud has originated. As it's based on a series of books, one gets the impression that director/co-writer Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) plans to develop things further in sequels. Two problems with that. First, I don't think anybody's going to want a sequel once they see this lame original. Second, by putting things in that are designed to pay off later on, it makes this installment kind of unsatisfying as a stand-alone (call it Phantom Menace syndrome).

John C. Reilly is good as Crepsley and some of the visuals are neat, but that's about it. We don't need the dull vampire battle, nor do we need the obligatory love story between Darren and a monkey girl. Instead, we need more of Darren helping Crepsley in a community of eccentric oddball people. That is compelling. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant starts off strongly, which only makes its drastic eventual decline that much more disappointing. What could have been a really quirky, edgy teen horror comedy instead turns into a crushing bore.

( 1/2 out of four)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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