Let’s get this out of the way quickly so we can get to the juicy stuff, The Strain, FX’s latest horror drama is the real deal. It combines elements of medical horror with an old school Universal horror vibe to create something wholly unique in the over saturated world of vampire fiction. In fact, we are proud to announce right here, in the inaugural The Strain review on Den of Geek, that the era of the sexy vampire is officially over. I say this as a fan of True Blood and Being Human, the tortured nice guy vampire with a heart of gold is a thing of the past. Thanks to show runner Carlton Cuse and writers Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, vampires are monsters again. Unrepentant, slithering, slimy, horrific nightmares that spread like ebola, and we couldn’t be happier.
In 2009, acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth) teamed up with novelist Chuck Hogan (The Blood Artist and Prince of Thieves, the novel that was adapted into the Ben Affleck film The Town,) to re-imagine the literary vampire genre. It took the horror world by storm, an act of open defiance against the Twilight craze that was choking the genre fiction shelves. Fans who devoured the book in warm coppery gulps knew that Del Toro and Hogan’s novel centered on a vampire contagion spreading through modern day New York would make for a killer film or episodic show.
And so it does. With renowned showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) at the helm, The Strain is an unflinching grand guignol making this latest bloodletting a worthy contemporary to American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and Penny Dreadful, the other shows that make up the true Golden Age of television horror, an age we are lucky to be living in even if we are experiencing it with white palms and clenched asses.
The opening episode pretty much take viewers 250 pages into the novel, so it will be interesting to see how the rest of the season breaks. The pilot is not a slow burn easing viewers into the dark and violent world of ancient evil and modern day pandemic paranoia, instead, Del Toro and Hogan break the pilot into basically the novel’s entire first act, giving viewers everything they need to know about the narrative and the crisis. It seems the rest of the show will be a thorough examination of the players involved. It couldn’t have been easy to juggle a cast this size and not get muddled in exposition or giving anyone short thrift, but Del Toro and Hogan pulled it off.
So let’s break down the pilot itself. First off, the cast. Cuse and company have put together a brilliant cast that truly sells Del Toro and Hogan’s dark world. Corey Stoll (House of Cards) has the requisite human vulnerability to bring to life Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a brilliant CDC worker tasked with solving New York’s vampiric contagion crisis. He sells every scene with the same sense of urgency whether it is the fantastic (chasing after a 500 pound vampire coffin) or the grounded (trying to convince his wife not to leave him during a therapy session).
Ephraim is the antithesis to the fantasy elements of the plot, a pragmatic, analytical mind who breaks down every challenge into a scientific process. Ephraim’s heroic counter point is Abraham Setrakian played by David Bradley (Game of Thrones’ Walder Frey) a Holocaust survivor who seems to known a great deal about the world of vampires and may be the only man who can stop it.
In Goodweather and Setrakian we have experts in the occult and in the spreading of disease, an unlikely team from two very different worlds that will be fascinating to watch develop. Between the two, Setrakian is the one not to be trifled with as his confrontation with two gang members who try to rob his Spanish Harlem pawn shop speaks to. The octogenarian Setrakian nearly make the two skells pee their pants as he bravely fights them off with intense threats. It’s really difficult to look away from Bradley whenever he appears on screen. The role was originally cast with John Hurt. It’s not often that one can say losing an actor with the skills of a John Hurt might be a good thing, but that’s just how accomplished Bradley’s performance is. When Setrakian speaks, he demands attention, lending an effortless gravitas to the series.
We also are treated to Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings) as Jim Kent, a CDC administrator who is Goodweather’s go to guy. Hey, we can trust him, he played Samwise Gamgee right? He helped Frodo through thick and thin, we can trust that face, right? Right? Not so fast, this bit of casting lolls viewers into a false sense of familiarity before turning over a few cards. Say it isn’t so, Sam!
We also have Mía Maestro (The Twilight Saga) as Dr. Nora Martinez, a character that is seemingly the Mulder to Goodweather’s Scully as she seems to buy into what Setrakian is selling. She has as keen a mind as Goodweather but seems to be more of a woman of action. We also have genre mainstay Natalie Brown (Bitten, Being Human) as Kelly Goodweather, Ephraim’s estranged wife, Ben Hyland as Zach Goodweather, Ephraim’s dotting and asthmatic son (will he be the first asthmatic in genre fiction not to lose his inhaler in a pivotal moment? Probably not), Miguel Gomez as Augustin “Gus” Elizalde, a street criminal tasked with picking up a very unusual and coffin-like package from JKF Airport during the initial phase of the outbreak, and Jack Kesy as Gabriel Bolivar, a rock star exposed to the contagion who may pretend to be goth but is actually a philandering poser at heart.
OK, we have our cast, what of the story? Firstly, the vampires. These are not open-shirted, body hairless, vaguely European lust monkeys. The vampires of The Strain are literal parasites, wriggling tape worms that resemble things reluctant pet owners must scoop out of infected dog poop. That is about as unromantic as one can imagine. Once in a host, the victim transforms into a more traditional, albeit monstrous, vampire, but the monsters here are, in fact, a disease, about as sexy as rubella and whooping cough, an infection that can spread and cause the fall of civilization unless a team of brilliant scientists and an AARP Van Helsing can bring it down.
I didn’t even mention a cabal of strange men in suits who seems responsible for the contagion and the hooded pile of worms that caused the infection in the first place. We got some delicious teases in the pilot, vague hints at a vast conspiracy that transcends time and place. Unlike most vampire fiction since Ann Rice kickstarted the sexy vamp craze in the ’80s, there is no moral ambiguity to these vamps (if that’s what they are), they are pure evil and hold no romantic notions of immortality or sensuality. They are the end of everything, capitalistic Nosferatus in expensive suits and ambiguous origins.
I made a powerful assertion, linking The Strain with American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, so let’s examine the scares. The first set piece that will stain your Fruit of the Looms takes place in the show’s opening salvo. This is a Carlton Cuse show so when there’s an airplane, you know something unforgettable will happen. The inciting event of the episode, and the season, and quite frankly, the series, is a flight from Germany to New York that lands safely in JFK.
In the book, readers have no clue what happened and why the ghost plane landed, but in the show, Del Toro and Hogan treat us to a brutal incursion by a foreign entity. And by foreign entity I mean some cross between Dracula, a Dementor from Harry Potter, and a freakin’ buzz saw made of hate and power. When Ephraim and Nora enter the scene after a few panicked calls to the CDC, everyone on board is dead except for four unharmed survivors. The chaos and sheer unflinching brutality of the plane assault is contrasted by the chilling subtlety of a plane full of white faced corpses including an adorable little girl established before all Hell broke loose in the cold opening. An adorable little girl that book ends the pilot by finding her way home to her grieving father who suddenly finds himself in the role of Renfield to her Dracula.
The final little bit of madness I want to discuss before I wash my hands for the next three days is the autopsy sequence. Yes, the autopsy sequence. The spirit of Lucio Fulci is smiling down on The Strain for this twisted set piece. Ephraim tasks his pal, a corpulent lab tech, to perform emergency autopsies on the plane victims. There is a great deal of sawing, organ removal, and skin ripping. When said lab tech finds one of the worms, it burrows into his skin insuring I will never go on an airplane not wearing a body condom again. As if the biological horror of being infested with Dracula worms isn’t enough, the poor guy then sees all the corpses he just dissected rise from their slabs, organs hanging out, skin removed, and newly undead.
On top of all that, elsewhere in the pilot, there are worm infested hearts in aquariums, phony rocks stars in Marilyn Manson hair pieces, colossal coffins with ancient carvings disappearing, and a street hustler who just wants to do one more job to help his mama.
Cuse, Del Toro, and Hogan start spinning many, many plates, each one overflowing with story potential, and the show has the one vital element all modern horror shows must have, huge, pendulous balls that allow the show creators to not flinch away from bodily atrocity and anatomical insanity.
The Strain is brainy horror not for the faint of heart. These vampires don’t sparkle; they burrow into your insides and violate every corner of your soul leaving you an infected and decaying husk, a parody of life.
It’s not a question of if The Strain is worth your time, the question is, when it’s all said and done, is The Strain the greatest episodic vampire tale in history of the genre? If the pilot is any indication, the answer may be a resounding yes.
Close your windows, Eric Northman and Edward Cullen are things for another time, and we are left with nightmares and worms, and some of the most daring horror ever experienced on television.