Kids' Horror Movie 'Cirque du Freak' is all Trick and No Treat

Universal Pictures

City Pulse | October 19, 2009
Scattershot and comically unbalanced, Cirque du Freak is a wannabe fantasy horror film that feels like it was filmed underwater. Teenage best friends Steve (Josh Hutcherson) and Darren (Chris Massoglia) buy their way into a troop of freaks performing one show at their local small-town theater. Mr. Ribs is so named because his internal organs are exposed. There's also a scaly "Snake-boy," a ravenous "Wolf-man," and a monkey girl (a tribute to her simian tail. Miscast is John C. Reilly as the troop's vampire-about-town Larten Crepsley. Steve recognizes Crepsley as an immortal bloodsucker from a book that Steve values because he desperately aspires to undead status. A visit from the nefarious Mr. Tiny and one misplaced psychedelic-colored poisonous tarantula later, and the boys choose mutually-exclusive paths into evil. Darren suffers the ultimate insult in order to become a vampire -- death -- in order to save Steve from a coma induced by the spider's bite. Steve in turn teams up with Mr. Tiny, whose close ties to a less sophisticated tribe of vampires known as the "Vampaneze" play into his plot to provoke a long-simmering war between the blood-dieting Vampires and the hungrier Vampaneze. A pot-shot subplot romance between Rebecca (Jessica Carlson) and Darren turns out to be the most redeeming aspect of this woefully misguided film, based on a series of books by Darren Shan.

The nut of the story that's smuggled, and buried, into the poorly edited Cirque du Freak is one of ultimate betrayal between friends. Darren and Steve are good enough pals to venture into dangerous worlds together, but are not on the same page when it comes to paying the costs of such unpredictable adventures. There's a nice moment of character revelation that happens after the Cirque's bizarre performance when Darren hides in Crepsley's office and learns secrets about his friend's stubborn desire to become an immortal vampire. Steve has obviously given considerable thought to the idea of becoming a member of the undead, but it's Darren who will tread down that path first. The problem is that the screenwriters (Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland) are unable to hang onto their most promising narrative thread in favor of piling on two television show's worth of secondary characters.

Intriguing eccentrics, like Willem Dafoe's impresario vampire Gavner Purl and Patrick Fugit's "Erva the Snake Boy," offer glimpses of quirky motivation when they're introduced but are quickly relegated to the back of the narrative bus. Salma Hayek's Madame Truska suffers notably as a buxom gypsy with a Cassandra complex. In her few scenes, Truska steals the show as the story's most likable character because she sincerely cares the most about doing the right thing. It might have served the writers well to go back and look at a film like George Pal's classic 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) for ideas about organizing their unwieldy freak-show-and-vampire narrative. The movie also trips when it veers into humor, as when a midget with a tall forehead threatens to insert his cranium into the posterior anatomy of an enemy.

A muted theme line -- "It's not about what you are, it's about who you are" -- comes across as a grade-school riddle that feeds back on itself in an endless loop of impotent syntax. Cirque du Freak is an obvious grab at the current vampire-crazed teen audience spawned by the Twilight franchise. That Cirque du Freak fails so miserably is a predictable symptom of overreaching greed. If its inevitable failure at the box office helps hasten an end to the mangled vampire genre for kids, then perhaps we can get back to the kind of blood-sucking pictures that give you nightmares rather than headaches.

PG-13. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
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