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At last, a horror show we can sink our teeth into. Vampires, zombies or something in between. Bioterrorists. Maybe even a Nazi or two.
Whatever the creatures of “The Strain” are, this is a great new FX television series, based on the trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and local writer Chuck Hogan. Both are aboard here as executive producers and, unlike the Coen Brothers with FX’s “Fargo,” the EP titles are more than an honorific. Del Toro, the hyper-imaginative director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” directed Sunday night’s pilot episode, which seems to be the cinematic template for the rest of the series. Hogan, like del Toro behind the camera, is more impressive working for the screen than the page. The writing in the book is prosaic while his writing on the series, and that of other writers, is as stylish as TV writing gets.
The boss (show runner sounds like the guy getting coffee) is Carlton Cuse, who also runs “Bates Motel” and, before that, a little show called “Lost” with Damon Lindelof. Like Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” this show has many of the virtues of “Lost” without its pretentiousness. “The Strain” doesn’t strain; it’s smart, straight-ahead horror.
And del Toro and Hogan have done their horror homework. There are quotes from many of the classics. The main on-screen vampire is German and the Van Helsing character — the only one in the world, seemingly, who knows the nature of this evil — isn’t about to mess with crucifixes and garlic. He’s a Jewish concentration camp survivor named Abraham Setrakian.
A plane has landed in New York and all the passengers are dead, seemingly, from some mysterious virus. But before you can say Sigourney Weaver, first the captain and then three other dead awaken, though each starts to feel not quite right in the head, followed by problems with other body parts.
Enter Ephraim Goodweather, played by Corey Stoll. The best thing about his character getting killed off on the hideously overrated “House of Cards” is that it freed him up for this series. Goodweather is the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City. (Like canaries, they’re the first into the cave, or plane in this case to test for noxious gases. Or noxious people.)
Goodweather has the classic dilemma — heed the call of family (wife and son) or job (keeping the public safe). The family feels he chose the job and now there are custody proceedings. Stoll is an excellent actor, taking what could have been a clichéd role and making it the soulful center of this universe.
The performance and the storyline give heft to the sense that del Toro and Hogan are saying that putting family first, a la the libertarians, is a morally inferior act to putting the community first. The ones who sacrifice the common good for family concerns are the ones who spread the plague in “The Strain.” The heroes come out on the other side.
But back to those horror quotes. My favorite comes at the beginning of the third episode (the first four were made available to the press; all but the second are excellent). A character who looks very much like the Phantom of the Opera is sitting at a dressing table getting ready to make an appearance, but it’s the reverse of the famous Lon Chaney scene. In “The Strain” he’s going from phantom to “normal” looking rather than the other way around. He puts the finishing touches on his makeup and smiles in the mirror, declaring, “Soon, no more charades.”
This is a creep-out show, not a gross-out one. Del Toro and Cuse create a world that’s a lot like ours, but when the differences arise a chill goes up the collective spine.
It’s part of the witty sense of humor of the show. “This work, it’s not for everyone” declares Setrakian after a pair of very dramatic beheadings, much to the horror of a CDC worker. A woman prays to Jesus for her husband’s soul, but eventually sacrifices a no-good neighbor to his bloodlust.
Still, this is a creep-out show for the most part, not a gross-out one. The former relies more on atmospherics, and cinematography, as well as smart direction, writing and acting. “The Strain” has all of those ingredients in spades. Del Toro and Cuse create a world that’s a lot like ours, but when the differences arise a chill goes up the collective spine. An exterminator follows one rat walking down the street only to find a legion of them making for the river. It’s a beautifully shot scene. There are several directors of photography, so you have to give credit, again, to del Toro and Cuse for the cinematic look of the show.
Take a look:
Stoll isn’t the only standout actor. Setrakian is played by David Bradley, whom you may know from “Game of Thrones” (Walder Frey) and the Harry Potter films (Argus Filch), but he’s also a veteran of the British stage, as are many of the “Thrones” gameplayers. It gives them a certain gravitas that their American counterparts often lack. The other characters might dismiss Setrakian as a lunatic when he tells them they have to round up all the surviving passengers and cut their heads off. We know you never dismiss a character played by Bradley.
Or by Richard Sammel, a German actor playing the first lieutenant of The Master of the vampires. By and large, the casting’s as good as everything else about the show.
The creep-out vs. gross-out factor brings us back to the vampires (creep-out) vs. zombies (gross-out) issue. I’ve always been a vampire man – as they retain their human consciousness, becoming entry ports into more artful areas of discussion about the nature of good and evil, Faustian quests for immortality, repressed sexuality, more things in heaven and earth, etc. Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and the Dracula gang are my kind of living dead.
Zombies, what are they good for? Absolutely nothin’ — except grossing you out with their soulless cravings. The only good zombie is a dead zombie. I’m a little concerned, then, that “The Strain” might lean too far in the zombie direction, though it’s hard to say. When the plane victims make their transition, they still retain their consciousness, but eventually seem to lose it. This makes for some nifty special effects, but might also make the show too “Walking Dead” in the long run.
We’ll see. I’m willing to go with the blood flow. FX is getting into the summer season in a big way with a raft of shows, but “The Strain” is the one that touches the heart. Or rips it out.
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