Lizard Chew Review -- Children of the Night

Lizard Chew Review of Children of the Night:

"If you're going to venture into the world of the undead, young man, you had better know the nature of the beast."

Like many other pilots, "Children of the Night" shows many rough edges and incompletely thought-out conceptions. Indeed, you could get the wrong idea entirely about the tone of the show from watching "Children." Nonetheless, it manages to cover most of the basic ideas, and there are some interesting flourishes that never recur and which make the episode worth watching--if not necessarily the first one you should see (which is rather unfortunate, considering that as the pilot it's the first one people were supposed to see!). It's also fairly enjoyable in itself, although only erratically so.

"Children" establishes the basic characterizations of the extended Helsing clan which we will see worked out during the series. Almost the first thing we ever hear is Max speculating wildly about vampires. Max is "a little obsessed with the supernatural," Eileen tells Gustav, and this probably qualifies as the understatement of the century. He is a typical ten-year-old mix of unrestrained imagination and actual knowledge; basically, he knows just enough to get himself thoroughly in trouble, as he does here when he concludes that Gustav is the vampire troubling the city and runs to Lucard for help. But in this situation his willingness to believe is actually a merit, even if Lucard takes advantage of his credulity. He is also quite brave and resourceful, dousing Lucard with holy water ("Never leave home without it!") and attacking the zombie to save Chris ("Nobody messes with my brother!"). His sense of wonder is charming: "I was in the same room as Dracula--the Dracula--and I didn't even get his autograph!" This is the same Max we will see throughout the series.

Sophie's character is as difficult to pinpoint in this episode as it is elsewhere. We don't learn a lot about her this time through. She is a "typical European girl" (whatever that is), reserved, more sophisticated than the boys, enjoying such delights as "Dances of Poland Night" on the "Festival of Folklore." She's somewhat more practical than Chris, reminding him to "take the stairs" instead of clambering out the window on Max's makeshift rope. She shows some courage and knowledge in this episode (bringing out the cross to rescue the boys, commanding Chris to "Believe!"), but she is a bit much of a damsel in distress here for my taste. If she's really been helping Gustav fight vampires, she should be a little tougher than she is in "Children." As usual, Chris exists largely as a foil to Max and Sophie, the skeptic to Max's believer, the American to Sophie's "European." Chris finds Max's preoccupation with the world of the undead totally ridiculous. It's clear that he regards Max as a general pain in the neck, always running off and doing stupid things that Chris will have to fix. Still, he obviously cares about him and feels responsible for him ("I know I'm gonna regret this, but I gotta know," he says, going to investigate the strange noises Max is making in their bedroom.) Given that their mother travels so much, Chris has probably had to look after Max a great deal, which I suppose would wear on anyone's patience, even if he wasn't an average sixteen-year-old with worries of his own. Chris never does progress much beyond the worries he shows in this episode--his problems adjusting to European life and his immediate crush on Sophie (which doesn't seem to be immediately reciprocated).

The adults play only a marginal role in this episode. Gustav Helsing, like his house, is subtly different in "Children." He seems much more remote, sophisticated, and threatening, much less down-to-earth. Max's notions, while silly, are not wholly incredible--if someone has to be a vampire, it might well be his mysterious uncle. However, this odd behavior is probably explained by his suspicion of the kids. In the tag of the episode, he appears much more his normal kindly, homely, yet determined self. Eileen is a loving but distracted mother, a calm and collected businesswoman (but not visibly the possessor of killer instincts that we're supposed to believe she is later on). Lucard is evidently interested by her recent activities--"You've been making quite a splash the past few weeks." She, on the other hand, is obviously impressed by the vampire, "one of the richest men in the world." This note of mutual attraction won't be picked up until "Damsel in Distress."

It is Lucard's character that is most clearly still under construction. The first glimpse we have of him, charming and socially at his ease at the embassy, is appropriate enough, but many other aspects of his persona simply haven't solidified yet. His hair is the wrong color, his accent comes and goes, and someone apparently told him that vampires aren't allowed to clear their throats (listen to the first conversation he has with Eileen!). He is far younger, more casual, and more dynamic when playing a mortal (his friendliness to Chris is positively aggressive), far more savage and rough-edged when acting the vampire. It's amusing to watch him toss his head and talk about MTV with Chris, and he is fairly frightening as the creature who grabs Sophie to bite her so clumsily and who jerks his head in submission at the end of the episode, but it's a good thing these elements vanish later on in favor of the cool, deliberate, elegant, graceful, blond Lucard with the "proper" accent. His posing in this episode is simply dreadful, intended to be frightening without succeeding. It took a while, it seems, for the people responsible for Lucard to hit on their brilliant idea of making him stylish and just this side of flamboyant, which actually allowed him to drop into genuine scariness by implication from time to time. It's also good that they abandoned the attempts to seem hip with the now painfully-dated references to Young MC (whose big hit was "Just a Friend") and Milli Vanilli ("Baby, Don't Forget My Number" and a lip-synching scandal). There are a few important aspects of Lucard's character successfully foreshadowed here, though, his enthusiasm for the vampire life--" know what? I enjoy being me!"--and his knowledge of art and wine among them. But more important than these, of course, is his relationship with Max. "Well, Max, I'm going to surprise you. I'm not one of those adults who will just ignore you": truer words were never spoken.

"Children" is only one of several episodes that Allen Eastman directed, so it's odd that the atmosphere of this episode should be so different from that of the rest of the series. The dark scenes are far murkier--the first shot of the castle is positively steeped in gloom--and the light scenes blurrier and dreamier. The tone is more deliberately frightening and weird. The sets are all wrong, both Gustav's house and the castle. In the series the quaint, curious, kitschy "House of Helsing" stands in moral as well as aesthetic opposition to the grand, beautifully furnished, but cold and formal castle, just as the earthy, frank, friendly Gustav opposes the sophisticated, restrained, clever Lucard. Gustav's house here has no particular character, and the castle does indeed look as if it were furnished out of leftover sets from a Metallica video, as Chris comments. Why would Lucard want such silly bird sculptures? The special effects are also simply terrible. When Lucard attacks Sophie, I'm not sure whether she's more horrified by the fact that he's about to bite her or by his wretched makeup (to say nothing of the clumsy way they cut back to his first transformation). His skin color and eyes are painful to look at, to say nothing of his fangs. His reaction to the holy water is just ridiculous. Clearly, someone watched this pilot and made the producer switch FX companies, since in general the limited effects in the show are well-done. They should get credit for getting the bats right, though.

Is this episode fun to watch? To a certain degree, if only for the incongruities. There are a few nice shots, such as Lucard tossing Chris the length of his table, and they're of a kind that you won't get to see again. If you like Max, you'll probably enjoy seeing him making the biggest of all his mistakes ("and believe me, there is plenty of competition!"). But a fan would be well-advised to avert his eyes from the screen at two moments in particular: after Max spills his poppy seeds in Lucard's office and after Lucard says, "I'll start with a little aperitif, I think." Believe your reviewer, you don't want to know what happens next in either case.

Favorite quote: Chris, referring to the Helsing home, "How you'd get Hansel and Gretel evicted?"

Worst plot hole: Sophie's indifference to the fact that they're at Dracula's castle until after the vampires and zombies have started popping out of the walls when she obviously knows that it's dangerous to be there

Best Lucard image: (tie) Our very first look at him, with the followup of his recognition of Eileen, and the shot of him putting in the Mozart CD

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