Lizard Chew Review -- What a Pleasant Surprise!


Lizard Chew Review of What a Pleasant Surprise!:

"And now...life imitates art."

"What a Pleasant Surprise!" is true to its title. Its premise could not be more unpromising: the appearance of a reluctant vampire, a charming sort of fellow but surely one we've all seen enough of recently. Its methods are unorthodox: in the way it constructs its plot it is far more like a "Twilight Zone" than a D:tS episode, and it gives Lucard scandalously brief screen time. The mystery of the episode is nonsensical, and it also features an appearance by Eileen, the most annoying of the regular characters. And yet "Surprise!" is sheer delight. Jonas Carey is perhaps the most amusing of all the one-shot characters (Mycroft St. John-Smythe being his only real competition). The regulars do themselves credit, and the loving tribute this episode pays to silent horror films (and silent horror film star Lon Chaney, Sr.) once again demonstrates that there is a real if unorthodox cleverness guiding this series. "Surprise!" won't stand up to any severe analysis, but it has a great deal of gossamer charm. It's one of my favorites.

You can tell this episode is going to be unusual from the very beginning, when it opens with a grainy black-and-white film, accompanied by an appropriately melodramatic organ, in progress. I haven't seen a great many such films, but the acting in "The Vampire's Tomb" seems like a good imitation, right down to the moment at the very end meant to evoke a sudden pity for Carey's vampire. The episode's treatment of the inset film is both loving and aware of such movies' overwrought nature ("Kinda corny." "Corny?!? It was magic!"); in this, it's not unlike D:tS's own self-awareness. This scene at the Cine Kursaal Cafe is one of the most effective of the teasers in the series, because it gives us the flight of fancy of "Vampire's Tomb" but also introduces us quickly to the guest character (even if we don't know it yet) and sets up the mystery of Lucard's own presence at the theater. I love Lucard's outfit here, and the way he smiles at the conversation he overhears between Gustav and Max; great evidence that he feels a kind of fondness for the boy.

This is probably Gustav's best episode, even better than the Klaus ones, in which he also shines. He is sentimental, impishly funny, and enthusiastic without being made to seem too dated or ridiculous. This is in large part because his goofier side is well-balanced with his serious one; appearing as both the wide-eyed fan of Carey and the determined opponent of Lucard, he comes off far better than when he's just being a cute old man. He has to establish the credibility of Carey's acting in order for us to feel the full effect of the vampire's fate, and he does so well. His relationship with the kids in this episode is endearingly avuncular. Since almost the only failing he ever shows in dealing with them is a tendency towards a little impatience, you do have to wonder what his relationship with Klaus was like. What did he do wrong (if indeed they were at all estranged before Lucard got to Klaus)?

It's Jonas Carey, however, who really makes "Surprise!" work. Because D:tS has the very incarnation of the glamorous vampire as its star, it seems to feel free to introduce all sorts of vampires who are "unsuited for the life" in contrast. Jonas Carey is certainly one of them. Overacting splendidly, making marvelous swooping gestures, milking every moment for the greatest dramatic effect, he is hysterically funny. It would seem that life imitates art in more than one way when it comes to him! That he doesn't want to be a vampire, not because of deep moral aversion to killing, but because he's just too much of a wimp to hurt anyone, is a perfectly brilliant touch. I don't know if he was intended as a parody of vampires like Nick in "Forever Knight," but he certainly skewers that cliche. His conversation with Gustav in the theater, the one beginning with "You're...unsuited for the life?" is perhaps my favorite exchange of all in the series. And yet, when he's telling his story, he's believably sad, despite the chuckles he continues to evoke. That story is a classic tale of "a deal with the devil gone wrong," but since it's told simply and without affectation, it's believable and works well. His thoughtful reflections at the end--"I was meant to be a gentler monster; a creature to dream of, perhaps, but never to meet"--are a revealing commentary on the motivations for art like "The Vampire's Tomb," and an implicit rebuke to the excessive realism of some of today's horror films. The special effects for his death are most clever. In short, Carey is a wonderful guest character, effectively developed in a brief space of time, placed in sensible relation to the main cast, possessing a "thematic" role, and given a proper ending. Fanfic writers for all series, take note!

Lucard's appearance in this episode is something of a puzzle. His overarching plot makes very little sense; I really think he should give Gustav more credit than he does for figuring it out! It's not at all clear, either, from this episode why he should choose to cause such mischief for Carey. The one hint he gives, however, is later confirmed (in "Decline of the Romanian Vampire"). He refers to Carey with disdain as "the old ham" and mocks his manner, asking him to "spare me the melodramatic proclamations..." We find out in "Decline" that he regards the various Dracula movies as "humiliating" if useful, so it would seem that Lucard was retaliating for "The Vampire's Tomb" when he ruined Carey's life. His scheme for doing so was worthy of him, though. I suspect that part of Lucard's irritation with Carey arises from the recognition that the latter's portrayal is not entirely off the mark; if you compare the two in their confrontation in the theater, it's hard to say just who is wearing the more exaggerated outfit. After all, Carey's cape is lined in white, Lucard's in red. If it weren't for the face makeup Carey is obviously wearing, I'd say Lucard looks more Lugosi-ish. The cynical, sophisticated Lucard (and the series) have always had an ambivalent relationship with the more melodramatic aspects of vampirism--after all, for all his self-restraint, fashion sense, and poise, Lucard still succumbs regularly to the urge to put on the cape and collar. Thus, Carey's portrayal must have been particularly galling. Lucard doesn't get anywhere near enough screen time in "Surprise!", which robs it of some of the series feel, but at least it manages to grant him a partial victory (having corrupted Carey into someone capable of savagery) without disturbing the balance of power in the D:tS universe, something episodes often have trouble with.

The subplots of this episode are just a bit above average. I do like Chris's conversion to women's tennis, which is neatly balanced with the puncturing of some of Sophie's "European" pretensions. Max's mistake is funny, too, especially when he desperately announces, "Guys, I promise, this is the last, the very last, stupid thing I'll ever do!" I know that feeling! (It's nice that for once the subplot actually springs from the main plot instead of proceeding along adjacent to it.) He also shows admirable bravery in his willingness to "face the music" by staying behind to hold off Dracula's anticipated invasion, and I'm glad the other kids chose to stay with him. I've never liked Eileen, but fortunately she doesn't get too much time in this episode (unlike the next one, alas).

I've said in another LCR that I think D:tS is best suited to whimsicality. This episode demonstrates my point perfectly, with its blend of high silliness and just a touch of serious reflection producing a most amusing half-hour. You have to be willing to cut it a little slack, because the "mystery of the theater" plot is both so unbelievable and made so prominent that it's hard to ignore its faults. You also have to put up with perhaps the most limited Lucard role in the series. But if you can do that, you'll find "Surprise!" an episode of irresistible goofy charm.

Favorite quote: "But you're a real vampire now!" "DON'T YOU THINK I'VE NOTICED?!? I'm tortured by the irony--oh, you have no idea!"

Worst plot hole: The whole theater business just makes no sense at all

Best Lucard image: Lucard in fedora and trench coat at the cafe, smiling at Max's comment, then looking about him thoughtfully


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