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Cast of “Cirque du Freak” is made up of anything but

Something about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is off right from the beginning. It could be the man enjoying himself, eating popcorn at a boy’s funeral in the opening scene, the sideshow-like music blaring, or the fact that the credits roll right after the first scene. Whatever it is, it sets a weird vibe for Paul Weitz’s (known for 1999’s “American Pie”) new film, which is based off a popular young adult book series.

“Cirque” follows Darren Shan (played by newcomer Chris Massoglia) during his transition from a parent’s prodigal son to a vampire upon sneaking off to a freak show (aptly called “Cirque du Freak”) with his trouble maker best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Though they couldn’t look anymore like two teens fresh out of puberty, they pass themselves off as 21 year olds and watch the sideshow. Ultimately, Darren decides to become a vampire, with the help of John C. Reilly’s quirky character, Larten Crepsley. Steve, however, is not good enough. So, Darren must leave his family, his best friend and school to learn the new tricks of the trade.

One of the first things Darren learns is that destiny plays a big role in the life of a vampire. Darren is wanted by a warring vampire clan called “The Vampanese” who hate the “freaks” that Darren comes to live with. When Darren’s family and friends, both old and new, become involved, Darren must decide who he really is.

In a time when vampire movies are all the hype, “Cirque du Freak,” the first of three rumored installments, will never garner all the glitz and glam of “Twilight.” It’s a movie whimsical enough to entice younger kids not yet mature enough for “Twilight’s” heavier storylines, but it has deep enough meaning to entertain adults. “Cirque” is definitely a pleasant surprise.

Teens and parents may be appreciative of the moral storylines of “Cirque” that make it much more than a campy vampire flick. There is a sense of urgency to show that so-called “freaks” shouldn’t be judged by how they look. People who are different can be just as loving, loyal and caring as anyone else. It’s a different take on the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Darren and his lady friend, Rebecca, who is part monkey, echo this sentiment, stressing that, “Being human is not about what you are, it’s about who you are.”

Though it is the main character who delivers the most important lines of the movie, the supporting characters steal the show. Hutcherson, a more experienced child actor from “Firehouse Dog,” is simply a better actor than Massoglia. He seems to be more in tune with his character’s emotions, whereas the character of Darren seems to be a walking cliché, the ultimate do-gooder. With the support of an all star cast (including Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe and William Defoe), Weitz probably could have chosen a better lead, because Massoglia sticks out like a sore thumb. Reilly’s role as mentor is also important to the plot. “Cirque du Freak” is predictable, but Crepsley keeps his audience’s attention and prevents them from writing this movie off as just another teen fantasy flick.

Hopefully, the sequels will fill in some of the gaping holes left in the plot of this first installment. However, it should keep some of the better aspects of the film- the whimsical, constant soundtrack, the use of “Nightmare Before Christmas”-like animation when transitioning between scenes, and the reliable camera-work. Partly because of the simple cinematography, the use of shadows to portray danger or mystery, and the ominous tones of voice used, the average viewer won’t have to pay close attention to “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.” This film, which could be called a “Twilight” for the younger set, save for the use of expletives, shows a few of the trials and tribulations a teenager must face, only in a setting where vampires and freaks are the norm. The film tells its young audience members to always follow their hearts, even if, in the case of Darren and Crepsley, it’s no longer beating.

Kate MacDonald can be reached at kaitlynm@student.umass.edu.

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