With vampires and all things related being hotter than ever right now, the entertainment industry is scrambling to come up with fresh ideas to inject into this very old concept. In this case director Paul Weitz has turned to a nine year-old, semi-popular series of books, The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren Shan, in which a popular high school student decides to leave that world behind and become a half-vampire who works as an assistant to the vampire Larten (John C. Reilly).

As the film opens Darren (Chris Massoglia) and his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) are just two kids looking to have a good time. They will quickly find themselves sneaking out to attend the Cirque Du Freak, a traveling freak show led by Larten. Soon through a series of over complicated plot developments, Darren and Steve find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries old war between the vampires and the "Vampaneze." Vampires with an Asian ancestry? No. The Vampaneze are just like any other vampire only they kill their prey whereas the regular vampires harmlessly sedate and feed from humans when they are hungry. You can probably guess which team Darren finds himself on.

Weitz is a skilled director and he is more than comfortable showing off his talent here. He is also working with an overstuffed script written by himself and Brian Helgeland that never gives the audience enough reason to care. A big part of the problem here may be rooted in the fact that somewhere along the line it was decided to cram the first three books in the series into a single movie. It is a move that was famously attempted by the makers of Lemony Snicket and we all know how far that franchise got. Besides showing a complete lack of respect for the source material it also seems to have paralyzed Weitz as a writer. It is easy to image the uproar that would have happened had the first three Harry Potter books been squeezed into 109 minutes.

If Twilight owns the teenage romantic demographic right now, then this film is aiming for young adults who are more interested in comedy. Having John C. Reilly as their lead, one of the top comedic names working today, is a good start. His character has the look of a washed up rock star who also likes to sport orange hair. A lot of the jokes are deadpan and often times the material is quite dark, but Reilly rides right on through those hurdles to emerge easily as the best reason to sit through this. Still, Weitz makes an honest attempt to draw some of those Twilight fans in with a supposed romance between Darren and Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), a "monkey-girl" who travels with the Cirque Du Freak. Physically she comes off as something of a Plain Jane and she possesses all the magnetism of an underage housewife. But of course, that "romance" is kind of necessary because later on he’ll need somebody to save from those evil Vampaneze.

The story, which at least won’t put you to sleep, hobbles towards a lackadaisical climax that features a drawn out brawl between Darren and Steve. Steve has joined up with the leader of the Vampaneze, Desmond Tiny (Michael Cerveris), and has recently been channeling his angst into a killing spree. It’s rather upsetting to see such a well directed film with such beautiful, memorable imagery brought to its knees by a lame script. The freaks that populate the landscape (played by movie stars such as Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, and Jane Krakowski) are well conceived and well executed. And had we been given the chance to get to know them then perhaps Cirque Du Freak would have had a fighting chance. Instead it wastes so much time on insipid supernatural politicking and infantile platitudes ("It’s not about what you are, it’s about who you are" shows up twice) that it ends up wasting yours as well.

Starring: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, Salma Hayek

Director: Paul Weitz

Runtime: 109 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Distributor: Universal

 

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