‘The Strain’ debuted on Sunday night on FX but did creators Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse do enough to separate this show from all the other vampire creations currently saturating the airwaves?
By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer
The oversaturation of the vampire genre on television in the last few years has permeated our viewing habits and left most people begging for sunlight. From Bill Compton’s willowy romanticisms on ‘True Blood’ to tweens in love on ‘The Vampire Diaries’, the idea of a blood sucking horde of the undead seems less like horror and more like dramatized fantasy in today’s version of the story. That’s not even touching on the film adaptations where vampires actually sparkle and glow.
So it’s a refreshing change to see a new take on the vampire mythology with Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s new series ‘The Strain’ which debuted on Sunday night on FX based on a trio of novels from Del Toro and author Chuck Hogan (The Town). These vampires aren’t in town to build bars and seduce all the girls in town — no, these creatures are more akin to the kind James Woods once described in the John Carpenter film ‘Vampires”
“Well first of all, they’re not romantic. Its not like they’re a bunch of fuckin’ fags hoppin’ around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? Forget whatever you’ve seen in the movies: they don’t turn into bats, crosses don’t work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata while he’s suckin’ the blood outta your neck, all right?”
The plot goes like this — a plane bound from Berlin, Germany to JFK Airport in New York lands without incident, but no one inside is responding once they are on the ground and the aircraft fails to go any further than landing on the tarmac. Due to the sensitive nature of this event, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is called in and that’s where we meet Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (played by outstanding actor Corey Stoll, best known for his role in ‘House of Cards’) — he’s a father who loves his kid, but barely spent any time at home so he’s now going through counseling with his ex-wife as he tries to get at least partial custody of his son. In the middle of his latest session, Eph gets a call about this plane and he’s off to save the world again despite his grand desire to earn the chance to spend more time with his kid.
At the plane, Eph and his assistant Nora (who he’s been knocking boots with for the past year) override the FBI and every other agency on the scene to be the first ones to get on board to investigate. Eph’s understudy is a guy named Jim Kent (played by Sean Astin), whose biggest job this episode is to hold his boss’ carton of milk and look concerned at all times with no other facial expression daring to creep over his white washed demeanor.
Aboard the plane, Eph and Nora discover that everyone seems to be dead — pale skin, cold and motionless. That is until four people wake up and scare the everloving shit out of the CDC crew before they are immediately quarantined. The 206 people that are dead are carried off the plane and put into triple wrapped body bags and sent off to the morgue for autopsies as to what caused this horrendous tragedy. Eph and Nora discover a substance on the plane only detectable by ultraviolet light that has traces of ammonia in it as well as a nine-foot tall coffin packed with dirt that wasn’t on the manifest and has no record of ever being on this plane.
The story from here drifts into a lot of different directions — some good and some bad.
We meet Abraham Setrakian (played by ‘Game of Thrones’ David Bradley), a Jewish pawnshop dealer who recognizes the signature event that happened on the plane as he gets called into action to stop whatever it is that’s going on right now. Abraham also happens to be a knife wielding bad ass capable of taking down two hoods who mean to rob him before dripping some blood into a water filled jar with a heart inside that feasts on his corpuscles like a Thanksgiving dinner.
Ephraim is clearly the centerpiece of the story as he investigates this weird anomaly on board the plane, trying to answer with medicine and reason, but not understanding what it is exactly that’s happening. His scientific train of thought is derailed, however, when he meets Abraham and hears the old man spill out about that mysterious coffin and how they still have ‘him’ captured so long as they possess that object. His meanderings sound somewhat plausible amidst this strange and unexplainable occurrence, but when he suggest burning the box and cutting the heads off of everyone who died on board, well he ends up spending the night in jail because he just sounds cuckoo.
Where the story slipped away for me a bit was the introduction of this group known as the Stoneheart Corporation, who are obviously led by the vampire contingent, as they’ve become some sort of power brokers in the world. The leader is a vampire named Thomas Eichorst (played by Richard Sammel aka ‘I’ve heard of the Bear Jew‘) — he’s obviously quite powerful as he plays out the events of the day to gain possession of this gigantic coffin for what we have to believe is a plot for vampires to take over the world. Del Toro and Cuse masterfully set the stage by making vampirism a biological disease unleashed on the United States, and it’s a new take on the genre where the show comes more ‘Outbreak’ and less ‘Interview with a Vampire’ but this mysterious firm, quietly pulling puppet strings from behind the scenes seems out of place in many ways.
This blend of science, fiction, fantasy and reality gets lost at times during the opening episode, but still curiosity wins out and ultimately I will be back for a second episode.
The final 30 minutes of this debut are really where things go up a notch as the creature inhabiting the coffin is revealed — a shadowy figure able to move with lightning quick speed, only revealing itself in a moment of hunger when he sucks dry an airport employee who gets a little too close for comfort before smashing his head into a billion pieces. The design of the vampire ‘weapon’ is more of a retractable tentacle that reaches out and attaches itself to a victim before draining them of every ounce of blood. Something tells me we’ve seen part of this design in Del Toro’s direction of the film ‘Blade 2’ in the vampire hybrids known as ‘The Reapers’.
It appears the Stoneheart corporation wants to infect the entire world with the vampire ‘virus’ and what better way to do it than to turn a plane full of people from different parts of the world into these creatures before they inevitably saunter home to then pass the disease off to their loved ones and so on and so forth the vampire plague spreads like wildfire. The only hope is that Eph somehow realizes amidst his skepticism that what he’s dealing with isn’t something science, reason or medicine can explain and team up with Abraham to kill as many of these creatures as they can before this infestation infects every living person in New York and then the rest of the planet.
Pilot episodes for a series can be very hit or miss and really shouldn’t determine whether an audience tunes back in for a second or third week in a row. Most series take a little while to find their identity, which is why I’m willing to overlook the biological weapon aspect of the story being combined with a shadowy front corporation engaging in warfare from behind the scenes. Despite some protests about a particularly creepy ad campaign for the show that eventually led to billboards being pulled down, the gore isn’t too graphic and seemed tame by comparison when watching Rick and Darryl blow off zombie heads on ‘The Walking Dead’.
The stage is set for a truly frightening vampire story — cerebral and haunting while dipping a big toe in fantasy without fully committing to a plunge in the deep end. The real mystery still remains, however, on whether this series will become better than the rest of the blood sucking shows already airing or just another tired old tale of necks being plundered and sharp teeth dulling under the weight of bad story telling.
‘The Strain’ returns in one week’s time and I’ll be there — will you?