The Strain is a horror TV series produced by Guillermo del Toro, based on his novel series. It follows a team of CDC Specialists (and their supporting cast) combating an epidemic that turns people into vampires. I usually give shows three episodes to reel me in and then I review them, but I haven’t had the chance lately so I’m eight episodes in.
The series opens with a panicked Flight Technician calling another, asking for help with something on the back of the plane. He tells her there’s something moving downstairs in storage, and he’s right and it escapes its confines and assaults everyone on the plane. When it lands in New York, the control tower staff see the ship didn’t land where it should have and it’s completely powered down. Suspecting a biological agent, they call in the CDC, bringing our main characters in.
From there we follow the CDC investigation, the victims, the survivors, the people behind the events and their (mostly unwilling) agents and people that don’t seem to be related to the plot. Over the next few episodes the series slowly builds the storylines for the different characters while slowly furthering the plot. The pace is a bit slow at first, the show taking its time to set things up, but it’s done in such a way that you remain intrigued and coming back for more.
There are issues of course, the main one being that the authorities in the world of The Strain are extraordinarily useless. I get that it’s TV authorities, but the Police and FBI are clueless about everything in this show and it’s almost as if the government can’t do a single thing about the conspiracy. There’s a hacker hired by that bad guys who singlehandedly disables the entire internet and cellphone infrastructure in New York, and it just goes on, as if there weren’t federal authorities who’d be all over this and sending the city into high alert fearing a terrorist threat. Even more baffling are the medical authorities. The CDC is anal about its job, and to see them just dismiss the threat of mass epidemic is just unbelievable.
The Strain is wonderfully creepy. The vampires move as if they’re having seizures. It gives them an unnerving quality. The victims’ gradual transformations get progressively more shocking and the final stage of the contagion, where the person has become a Strigoi as one of the characters calls them, is downright scary. At the start of one episode, we see a matured Vampire put on his ‘human face’ with a makeup kit and we get to see how these Vampires look further down the line and they’re even more disturbing.
The Vampires’ design itself is horrific. Teeth become warped, their eyes get a new set of eyelids (technical term nictitating membrane), and their entire system gets reworked around a foot-long stinger they shoot out of their mouths and latch onto their victims to feed on them and spread the disease.
The show has its abundance of deaths but it never gets gory or disgusting. The ‘worst’ scene in this regard is an autopsy on a newly minted Vampire, and to be honest, it’s mild. Especially so if you’ve ever seen Hannibal. Now that’s a show that sometimes crosses the line. Compared to that, The Strain is beyond tame. But the thing is, the show doesn’t need the gory spectacle to creep you out, the monsters and the different situation do that on their own.
Overall I enjoy the characters, my favourites being three: the New York Pest Control officer Vasiliy Fet, for his dry and total deadpan humour and because of how unique his perception of the situation is. For him it’s not Vampires, but something more akin to rat. It’s an infestation and by the time the ‘main’ party meets in last week’s episode, he’s already had a few Vampire kills on his belt, stating he exterminated them. He’s passionate about his job but is cold and detached in the execution of it. The second is Abraham Setrakian, an Armenian Holocaust survivor and this show’s version of Abraham Van Helsing. He’s portrayed by David Bradley, more famous for playing Finch in the Harry Potter films. Setrakian is a Vampire Hunter and the only character on ‘hero side’ who knows what the hell’s going on and what the endgame is. He’s headstrong and almost fanatical in his dedication and I love every moment when he argues with Ephram about the Vampires. Doctor Ephram is a CDC doctor and he refuses to see these creatures as Vampires and insists that everything must have a logical explanation. For the most part he’s right as these Vampires aren’t supernatural (though they still die exposed to sunlight and the only thing that can really harm them is silver), but his inflexibility in the face of the evidence makes him a somewhat irritating character, though these clashes with Abraham, which almost always end with the old man basically telling him “I told you so,” are extremely fun. The third favourite character of mine in this show is The German, Thomas Eichorst, a very old Vampire. He’s in control of the entire situation for his mysterious Master (whose face hasn’t been seen yet, always wearing his cloak). You can only enjoy this gleefully evil character and his interactions with Setrakian are fantastic. They have a long-time-enemies vibe that just makes their every scene a joy to watch.
I love Sean Astin, I really do, but I hate his character, though I can’t knock his performance and I think it’s the point of it all, that you dislike him.
Every character gets his own share of background and personal plots. Ephram has his failed marriage and custody hearing during the first few episodes. Sean Astin’s character, Jim, sets things in motion to save his dying wife. Gus, a petty criminal, gets blackmailed by Eichorst to do the Vampire’s bidding so he can keep his mother in the country and his screw-up brother out of jail. . Mía Maestro’s Nora, Ephram’s colleague, has slept with him in the past, supports him in getting custody and deals with her mother’s Alzheimer. Every character in this show isn’t wholly dedicated “to the cause” but they have people to care about and protect, or family issue to solve or worry about. The scene where Vasiliy (Kevin Durand) is talking to his estranged father and begging for him to leave the city is outstanding.
I like that. I like that the character’s aren’t just there to solve the problems, but have personal lives to go with it. It makes them human, gives them something to strive for, something that keeps them going even though it’s probably going to get them all killed.
Visually speaking, the Strain is very minimalist on CGI, using practical visual effects, make-up and props more than computer-generated stuff. CGI is used almost entirely on the parasitic worms through which the Vampires reproduce, the stinger through which they feed, and briefly during the first couple of episodes for the Master Vampire. The episodes have fantastic atmosphere, especially the first one, in which the clever use of shadows and darkened rooms and the almost sterile airplane made things seem more dangerous and scary. I’m enjoying the visual/cinematography style of The Strain, I think it’s one of its strongest points, not surprising considering how much of an expert Del Toro is on creepy visuals (Pan’s Labyrinth, anyone?).
I can’t say I remember any of the songs used in the series, or the music (in general) for that matter. But what I will always remember and praise The Strain for is its sound effects. The low guttural growl that comes from the Vampires, in particular, adds to their unnerving quality and makes them even creepier. The cries of the parasitic worms is also great, makes them feel like living beings and as such, nastier and more disturbing.
Overall, with eight episodes in, the Strain is an outstanding show and as far as I’ve been reading, a very good adaptation of its source material, though once I get my hands on the novel and read it for myself I’ll tell you for certain.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Watching. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.