You know, I remember a time when the scariest thing on television was Sesame Street’s Count. Seriously, the way he’d look directly into the camera, DIRECTLY INTO MY SOUL, and see me sitting on my parents’ couch in my Spider-Man pyjamas, and I knew, I KNEW, that he would visit me in bed that night, pull out all my teeth, and count them, one by one, while I choked on my own blood.
Sure, I was twenty-four at the time, but it was still frightening as hell.
Seriously though, there was a long time when horror-based TV series were as rare as decent Brendan Fraser movies (and when they were on the air, they were usually anaemic anthology shows with twists as surprising and unexpected as a bad M Night Shymalan movie). In recent years, however, horror has been reclaimed, with shows like SUPERNATURAL, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE WALKING DEAD, TRUE BLOOD, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, BEING HUMAN, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, and if rumour is true, an upcoming series based on THE EVIL DEAD, and starring Bruce Campbell himself (though admittedly I remain a little dubious about this last one’s potential. I love the original movies, but they were roller coaster rides, terrific for a 90 minute blast, but can you stretch that out over so many episodes and keep it strong and vibrant? Time will tell).
And then there’s THE STRAIN, from the mind of Guillermo del Toro (PAN’s LABYRINTH, HELLBOY, PACIFIC RIM) and crime writer Chuck Hogan. In one of those weird circuitous paths that the entertainment industry takes, the TV series started out as… a TV series, or at least a TV series idea that del Toro pitched to the Fox Network. Del Toro had the idea for a serious vampire series, but done in the style of a crime procedural/medical epidemic show (not a new idea admittedly, Richard Matheson having cleared the path previously with his seminal work I Am Legend, and Carl Kolchak married crime and crime reporting with the supernatural long before most of you were ever born).
The Fox Network, being the Fox Network, wanted to make it a comedy.
Del Toro turned to experienced novelist Chuck Hogan, to help lend a more authentic air to the scientific and police aspects that del Toro wanted (in an old-fashioned touch, they joined forces on a handshake deal, never signing anything official until much later). When the first book, The Strain, was released in 2009, studios fought for the TV and movie rights, but del Toro and Hogan held off, wanting to write a trilogy and not let what might appear onscreen to affect how they wrote. Once The Fall was released in 2010, and finally The Night Eternal in 2011, then they went to the studios. FX proved most willing to remain faithful to the source material, as well as be willing to make a limited series of several seasons, rather than opt to stretch the story out into an open-ended path that would inevitably decline in quality.
Full disclosure here: I mostly hate vampires. They’ve been, forgive the pun, done to death. Particularly the need to make them human, sympathetic, sexy… sparkly. Movies like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and STAKELAND stand out for me because their vampires see us, and treat us, as their food source, nothing more. They want to feed on us, not shag us. Not having read the source novels, I wondered if THE STRAIN would have vampires that do the Mommy-Daddy Dance.
Well, having watched a graphic scene in the third episode of THE STRAIN, I know now for certain that these vampires will not be making the Beast With Two Backs with their prey. Even if they wanted to.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. THE STRAIN opens in New York’s JFK airport, as a plane in from Berlin lands on an isolated runway, refusing to answer their radio, all their window blinds but one drawn, lights out, engines cold. Why? Well, moments ago, as the plane was preparing to descend, something was heard moving about in the cargo hold below. It burst out into the body of the plane through a hatch…
Then we get to what will be for me the weakest part of the series, as we focus on Dr Ephraim “Eff” Goodweather (Corey Stoll, HOUSE OF CARDS), head of the CDC team in New York City. Or rather, we focus on his domestic problems, as he tries to get back with his estranged wife Kelly (Natalie Brown, DAWN OF THE DEAD) and son Zach (Ben Hyland). It’s a futile effort, as it’s obvious that the man is a control freak and is too wrapped up in his work to give his family the attention they deserve, and she’s so uninterested in getting back with him she’s had her new boyfriend move in and remodel the house already. I get that del Toro and Hogan wanted some emotional weight to their main character, but in the three episodes I’ve watched to date, every time the show focuses on his family and his domestic problems, the pace crawls like my grandfather driving on the highway.
Fortunately, Eff is called away to the airport, winning out on a dick measuring contest between the FBI, Homeland Security and others as to who gets to go onboard the plane first. Eff and his colleague Dr Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro from the TWILIGHT saga, but let’s not hold that against her) – and you know that these two have had an affair, don’t you? – win the contest, get into their Hazmat suits and board, finding everyone died peacefully moments after landing, with no obvious signs of poison or infection.
Suddenly, there’s a handful of survivors found, including the flight captain and Marylin Manson-a-like rock star Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy). They get quarantined, the bodies get bagged and taken to the morgue, and with the help of Eff’s colleague Jim Kent (Sean Astin, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) begin the investigation. Does it have anything to do with the huge, elaborately-carved wooden crate filled with dirt found in the hold? Give yourself a No-Prize if you said Yes.
Watching this on TV in New York is old pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, known to Harry Potter fans for being the worst caretaker in the world, and Game of Thrones for being the worst wedding planner), who demonstrates that age does not preclude him from being a badass by successfully fending off two crooks trying to rob him, before grabbing his cane sword and heading to the airport, having recognised what’s really going on from the news. Of course, as tradition dictates no believes Setrakian – at least, at first. John Hurt was originally signed up for the role of Setrakian, but bowed out, which was a good move, as Bradley is more convincing as a grizzled guy who knows how to cut you and leave you dying.
Also watching the news is dying billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde, who was the crazy white hunter in JUMANJI), who has arranged for the contents of the coffin (even though everyone calls it a box) to be brought into New York, as well as a small-time crook named Gus (Miguel Gomez) to collect the box and sneak out of the cordon, with the help of the traitorous Jim Kent – bad Hobbit! – and the supervision of vampire Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), who knew Setrakian back in the concentration camps, and presumably not on the same side.
The second episode will introduce Russian-born City Exterminator Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand, who played the Blob in the first WOLVERINE movie) It was a role del Toro originally envisioned for his old pal Ron Perlman, but Durand makes it his own, and it becomes obvious that later he’ll join our heroes in the fight to find The Master (former wrestler Robert Maillet), who thankfully makes an appearance in the first episode when we see him graphically kill his first victim.
THE STRAIN is keeping me hooked, more than FROM DUSK TIL DAWN had, and I’m impressed both with the level of blood and gore and with the general level of acting and the atmosphere (with some striking creepy images). There’s a definite visceral creepiness to the cause of the vampiric infections (anyone who saw Michael Levinson’s THE BAY – read Scott’s review here – will understand). And though some of it does play as predictable, including the domestic crap, it remains an eminently watchable series so far. Fingers crossed it remains that way.
Director: Various, though del Toro directed the first episode
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 7 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy