Vampire is the new black. Between the popularity of the "Twilight" franchise and HBO's "True Blood," bloodsucking hasn't been this lucky since the Wall Street bailout. Now comes another vampire-centric tale, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant."
Truncating the first three novels of Darren Shan's young-adult book series, the flick boasts warring vampires, teenagers living on their own and an impressive array of carnival oddities. The only thing it lacks is bite.
It's a shame, too, because the movie squanders a lot of potential. It flits from tween fantasy to campy satire to would-be scares without registering as much of anything. Moviemaking is a collaborative process, but nothing can damage a picture like too many cooks with too many different ideas, and "Cirque du Freak" is surprisingly flavorless.
The story involves high school friends Darren (Chris Massoglia, TV's "Wanted") and Steve (Josh Hutcherson, "Journey to the Center of the Earth"). Steve is a juvenile delinquent from a broken home; Darren is a good kid, because, aside from a fascination with spiders, he appears to have no discerning traits.
The buddies sneak away one night to check out a traveling freak show, the Cirque du Freak, and they "? like us "? are mesmerized by the likes of a scaly snake boy (Patrick Fugit, "Almost Famous"), a bearded lady (Salma Hayek, "Across the Universe"), a woman who can regenerate limbs (Jane Krakowski, TV's "30 Rock") and others.
For Darren and Steve, however, the main attraction is a world-weary vaudevillian who performs with a big, poisonous spider. Steve, who happens to be an expert on vampirism, recognizes the man to be centuries-old vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, "Step Brothers"). Darren steals the spider after the show, a regrettable impulse that winds up with him transformed into a half-vampire serving as Crepsley's assistant.
But Darren is a nice-guy bloodsucker. He becomes ensnared in a vampire civil war between the likable Crepsley and his ilk "? predators who sip on, rather than kill, their prey "? and a murderous sect called the Vampeneze. That ill-mannered group is controlled by an effete fat fellow named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, TV's "Fringe"), who gets his evil mitts on Steve.
That's only an abridged version of this overly plotted film tasked with cramming three books into 108 minutes. Writer/director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy," "In Good Company") and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River," "L.A. Confidential") have excelled in the past with character-driven fare, but here, they barely have enough time to shoehorn in bulky exposition and introduce characters likely to turn up in anticipated sequels.
It remains to be seen whether a sequel will see the light of day "? which, as we know, isn't usually a good circumstance for vampires. "Cirque du Freak" has its fun moments, particularly when Reilly is onscreen as the sarcastic Crepsley. But it's not enough to acquit a clumsy narrative, disjointed editing and murky action sequences.
In the end, "Cirque du Freak" is a mess "? and not even a bloody mess.