October 23, 2009 at 1:00 am

Adam Graham Film Review: 'Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant' -- GRADE: C-

Review: 'Cirque du Freak' is a bad oddity

Salma Hayek is the bearded lady in the action-horror-comedy hybrid. (Universal Pictures)

Harry Potter needn't call time out on his Quidditch game, and Edward Cullen can stick to his beauty rest. "Cirque du Freak" won't challenge their book-to-screen franchise crowns anytime soon.

"Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" -- the first, and likely last, chapter in the "Cirque" series -- is a sloppy horror-action-comedy hybrid that's an example of how to kill a franchise before it's started.

Based on the first three entries in the 12-volume Brit-lit series, "The Vampire's Assistant" struggles to find a consistent tone while introducing too many characters and too much mythology into its 108-minute running time.

The film follows Darren (newcomer Chris Massoglia, in a charisma-free performance), a high school student ordered by his parents to stay away from his troublesome best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson, "Zathura"). One day, he and Steve visit a traveling freak show where they're introduced to all manner of sideshow oddities, including a 200-year-old vampire by the name of Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly).

Through a blur of events as clumsy as the film's retro-cheesy special effects, Darren and Steve find themselves on opposite ends of a centuries-spanning conflict between vampires and the "Vampaneze," a meaner designation of blood-suckers with a predilection toward overacting (think of them as campires).

Cohesion takes a backseat as director Paul Weitz -- brother Chris sank "The Golden Compass" series -- overstuffs the screen with strands of stories good for three movies, not one.

Yes, vampires are so hot right now even the Count from "Sesame Street" is probably working on a screenplay, but "The Vampire's Assistant" doesn't benefit from any of the heat. Think of "Cirque du Freak" as undead on arrival.

agraham@detnews.com">agraham@detnews.com (313) 222-2284