“The Strain”, it would appear, was a puzzling labour of love for director/writer Guillermo del Toro. In 2006 he put the idea for a vampire TV series to producers, but it wasn’t picked up. Not to be deterred, del Toro recruited Chuck Hogan, an author with a strong orientation towards screenplay writing, to write a trilogy of novels. I confess to not having read the novels or much into the background of The Strain prior to watching the TV series. I am currently watching the second season, neatly based on the second novel. The third season is out next year, which might only take in half the final part. Del Toro believes that two seasons would do the third novel the most justice, but he is also open to divergences for the benefit of a successful adaptation. One cannot help but read that as his hope to keep the franchise going as long as possible.
Dr Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (Corey Stoll) of the Center [US sp.] for Disease Control and Prevention is pulled away from a mediation meeting with his wife (Natalie Brown) and son (Ben Hyland) to attend to an emergency investigation into a Boesing 747. With everyone save four passengers dead on board yet with no obvious signs of violence, it is suspected that a virus might be a cause. Meanwhile, pawn shop owner, retired history teacher and Jewish holocaust survivor, Professor Abraham Setrakiaheld (David Bradley) sees the danger and tries to warn Goodweather along with his colleague and former lover, Dr Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro), of the impending disaster. Little do they any of them know, billionaire Eldrich Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and Augustin "Gus" Elizalde (Miguel Gomez), a Mexican gang member just released from juvenile prison, have been engaged by the sinister Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) to ensure the virus and plane’s most important cargo, the entombed undead body of a powerful vampire get out…
“The Strain” is undoubtedly more in del Toro’s commercialised US action mode than in his Mexican dark fantasy. You can love Pan’s Labyrinth with ease without feeling a thing for this series. When I first read about del Toro’s involvement with this project I saw the title “executive producer” and wrongly assumed he had little actual involvement with the project. Think Tarantino or Spielberg’s names attached to works that have the most tenuous connections to their usual projects. As it turns out del Toro wrote and directed the pilot episode and has regularly worked on the series whenever his busy schedule has allowed. We often assume that artists of a high calibre begrudgingly do commercial work to pay the house bills. This is not always the case. My guess here is that del Toro originally wanted to pre-empt True Blood by two years in giving us an 18 certificate ongoing vampire serial.
Treading the well-worn and proven apocalypse plot style best exemplified by The Walking Dead, we follow the adventures of a gang of dysfunctional vampire hunters and their opponents, a legion of vampires headed by The Master and his two lieutenants, a business mogul hungry for immortality and a vampire Nazi. The story takes us from the fruitless attempts to contain the virus by two biologists and a lone vampire hunter to the ongoing struggle by their assembled team to thwart the spread of the virus. All of this drama is laced with various internal politics on both sides. Before the first season is out, sub-divisions are revealed that complicate the war further.
This is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with an 18 certificate, featuring vampires that are clear stylistic variations on the Predator/Alien inspired Reaper vampires of del Toro’s “Blade II”. These vampires are in the mould of Nosferatu’s Count Orlok, as were the reapers. With one of the vampire hunters being the city’s pest control man who first spots the emergence of the monsters in the sewers by the behaviour of the rats, the look of the vampires might not be the only nod towards the 1922 silent masterpiece.
After a very promising two hour pilot that did a great job in building tension and introducing an interesting cast of characters, the series descends into science fiction vampire clichés. As the title suggests, “The Strain” deals with vampirism as if it were an actual biological virus. However, we swiftly discover that this is so much camouflage. Del Toro deals with surreal and supernatural material, and no amount of self-awareness of the illogicality of the vampires being voiced by the story’s resident virus expert is going to distract the viewer from that point. The series attempts to further distance itself from its vampire trappings a little by having them occasionally referred to as strigoi. The strigoi were the traditional names Romanians gave to vampires. Romania, because of its association with Bram Stoker’s famous creation, is the country most often linked to vampires. Unfortunately using the old strigoi title for del Toro’s particular brand of vampire is far from original. There have been examples of the name being used within vampire fiction up to the present time. There is even a 2009 movie using the name as its title.
The Master character, in name and appearance, appears to be a rather lazy steal from both Buffy and Salem’s Lot. Unfortunately the special effects for this character, once he is revealed, don’t mitigate this felony. For this first season he looks a giant evil muppet, which might be spooky in the context of – well, “The Muppets”, but it doesn’t fit in with the high visceral gore and body horror on display. Only a Peter Jackson comic-horror like Brain Dead can get away with that sort of thing.
The looks, noises and behaviour of most of the vampires are in line with the flavour of adrenalized vampires, zombies and other monsters we have seen in the past 20 years. They can be killed by UV, which echoes “Blade” and several other more sci-fi themed vampire franchises, but has its roots in “Nosferatu” where death-by-sunlight was first introduced into vampire fictions. The traditional use of silver against vampires is retained as a weakness. However, being impaled through the heart has been done away with. Instead the story keeps to decapitations as the method of killing a vampire. Actually, cutting the head off is overkill in this franchise. Del Toro and Hogan decided they would skip over to George Romero’s vampire-related zombie camp of ideas and steal the “kill the brain” idea for their brand of vampire. Indeed, save for a select elite minority, the vampires behave a lot like zombie drones.
The series relies a lot on deux ex machina and sheer luck for the vampire hunters, especially when they seem to bungle so much. All the team members make regular stupid mistakes in order to further the convoluted plot. Frequent attempts are made to split them off to meander into subplot journeys, which I cannot help but assume is inspired by the success of “Game of Thrones”. Expect to see a lot of ongoing series attempt this strategy and fail by diluting the essence of the story. “The Strain” damages its fragile suspension of disbelief by the very silly excuses often made all the cast members when they decide to go off alone into the vampire apocalypse, often going on ridiculously risky missions.
I can appreciate the value of the latter. It has echoes of the “V” franchise in this respect and the internal politics of the drama is one of the show’s most appealing features. None of the team has any military training or combat experience save for Professor Abraham Setrakiaheld (yes, the wizened vampire hunter leader is called Abraham!) who has learnt through his lengthy time fighting the strigoi. The in-fighting, egos and strained external loyalties understandably compromise the team’s ability and I think we can all buy that. However, this is often inconsistent with the remarkable killing abilities they all seem quickly acquire when facing armies of vampires. Having been able to handle multiple bloodsuckers in hand-to-hand combat and deftly manage a variety of firearms, the team suddenly become total losers when it comes to devising certain escape strategies. The other irritation here is the inconsistent threat of the vampires. Within the first few episodes we see how incredibly easy it is to be infected by a vampire. A single worm only has to land on your skin for it to quickly burrow in and doom you to servitude under The Master. Each vampire is loaded with these ever-multiplying vectors of evil. Yet the team and many others happily wade in with swords, knives and clubbing weapons without so much of quick check afterwards to if any of the worms has attached itself to an item of clothing.
“The Strain” has a competent cast, including regular cult TV actors like Kevin Durand working on familiar territory and former hip-hop artist, Miguel Gomez, does well to uphold the strong parallel sub-plot. Mía Maestro also deserves a mention in a role that seems to be constantly playing second fiddle to Corey Stoll’s and could have been provided with more expansion. As a result her performance is very sympathetic and almost cruelly treated by the events that transpire. David Bradley gets his opportunity to shine and this alone is good reason to give the show a fair viewing. Having risen from playing creepy characters in the “Harry Potter” series of films, the first season of “Broadchurch” and “Game of Thrones”, the award-winning Shakespearean actor overshadows lead actor, Corey Stoll, throughout the series.
I don’t wish to diminish Stoll’s performance too much, but I have trouble feeling sympathy for his complex character. Eph comes in as an ego-driven control freak of a genius who is bonded to his career. Nevertheless, his work is driven by humanitarian altruism and he garners affection around him. He has a good relationship with his son, but due to his huge flaws his marriage is over. Much of the story’s sub-plots are dominated by ongoing problems with his wife and child, and his loyal work colleagues, including his relationship with Dr Nora Martinez, which take on a much more complex dimension once the vampire war breaks out. He is the typical male hero and intended sympathetic lead, but is less interesting than the equally complex Dutch Velders played by Ruta Gedmintas who gets far less screen time. Gedmintas conveys a lot of humanness in her character that redeems a lot of the storyline’s absurdities.
The Master might be at the centre of the struggle but the main badness is provided by his two decidedly different lieutenants. Jonathan Hyde’s Eldrich Palmer is reminiscent of a rather hammy, more vulnerable and less intelligent version of Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart from the UK’s original “House of Cards”. Richard Sammel’s Thomas Eichhorst also plays melodrama as a stereotypical Klaus Kinski Nazi villain, but his go-for-broke tactic in acting provides a more enjoyable performance. Sammel does spite very well and his exchanges with both Hyde and Bradley’s characters are always memorable.
If you are looking for a truly original entry into the vampire genre, I direct you towards Neil Jordan’s criminally under-rated “Byzantium”. However, I would urge you do this before watching season five of “American Horror Story”, “Hotel”, as this has clearly stolen and bastardised Byzantium’s unique interpretation of the character. That being said, “The Strain” is entertaining and compelling viewing with relatively high production values if you can get over the ineptitude of the vampire hunters.
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