The teen neck-biter sweepstakes gains a new entrant with "The Vampire's Assistant," a distillation of several titles from the popular British "Cirque du Freak" series. It isn't really much, beyond a wry tone and a few earned laughs.
As usual, the fantasy form is used for a sneak psychology lesson. Darren Shan (Minneapolis actor Chris Massoglia) lives a tidy little life in a tidy little town. In other words, he's half dead already. His parents have his "happy, productive" future all planned out.
Delinquent pal Steve (Josh Hutcherson, "Bridge to Terabithia") points out adventures off the straight and narrow path. When they attend a shady freak show, Darren is awestruck: These are his people. In short order he's traveling with the show. He apprentices with slick, hammy bloodsucker Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), falls for a cutie with a prehensile tail, and becomes a player in a war between rival factions of undead.
The film shuffles together episodes from the first three volumes of the 12-book "Cirque" saga, which may explain its rushed, patchy feel. It unfurls like a series of skits. Director Paul Weitz ("In Good Company") films the carnival kitsch in poshly lurid color and gives his performers permission to camp it up.
Reilly is droll in a red velvet suit, top hat and a crown of carrot-colored hair. He's a small-time ham with a classic con man's grand manner. Crepsley is a good vampire who refuses to chomp jugular veins. "That would kill you," he archly explains to Darren. Instead he anesthetizes his human prey, makes a neat incision in the shoulder and sips delicately. This keeps the host alive and avoids the whole torch-and-pitchfork brouhaha sparked by his throat-ripping cousins, the murderous Vampanese.
The bad vamps, led by obese Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) want ... well, I'm not sure what they want other than to fight Crepsley and Darren. There are dark hints about the conflict between the mystical clans, but the film is more interested in fisticuffs and splintering furniture. It's loud and emphatic, but not terribly frightening.
"The Vampire's Assistant" brims with youth-specific motifs: fractured friendships, disenchantment, agonizing over choices, first love, travel. They don't fit smoothly into a vampire story but you can see what was intended.
Massoglia gives a warm, likable performance as Darren; just 17, he suggests a young John Krasinski. Salma Hayek, inhumanly voluptuous and whiskered like a desert prophet, plays the Cirque's bearded lady; Ken Watanabe is somehow 9 feet tall as the colossal owner, and gaunt Willem Dafoe sports a gigolo's mustache as an elder vampire. Weitz can't get the jumble into coherent form. He's a good comedy director, but this spook show suffers from the kind of pacing that demands a laugh track.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186