Scattershot and comically unbalanced, Cirque du Freak is a wannabe fantasy horror film that feels like it was shot 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 Wolfman and a Monkey Girl. John C. Reilly is miscast 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. 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.
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. 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. Grade: C-
Opens Oct. 23. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.