I’ve been excited to see anything with Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to it since I first viewed his “trippy” work of art, Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m a fan of how he seems to take fairy tale material and effortlessly give it a dark, emotional narrative that, in my opinion, makes it easy for the viewer to temporarily forget it’s actually fiction. Not to mention what has become his signature styling in creäture innovation. From the mold breaking vampires of Blade II to the unconventional robots of Pacific Rim, del Toro appears to have a firm grasp on being able to push the visual envelope.
We now get to see del Toro’s vision every Sunday night on FX. The Strain is a series actually based on the novel of the same name, written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I find the series, which has aired four episodes thus far, quite interesting because of it’s treatment of the heavily used vampire genre. There aren’t any teenage vampires turning into glitter under the sunlight, nor are there people intentionally hanging out with vamps at bars. Some spoilers are to come for anyone who hasn’t watched yet. Episode one is actually directed by del Toro and is 90 minutes long(closer to 70 minutes minus the commercials). This pilot episode opens on a night flight preparing to land in New York. A male flight attendant panics as he is told by another attendant that an “animal” is below them in the cargo area. After several bangs against the cargo area door, finally a large creature emerges and attacks the 2 flight attendants. From this point, the episode goes directly to the CDC investigation.
The pilot isn’t very easy to get excited about as the pacing seems uneven. There is a lot happening and several characters crossing paths without much validating explanation. Although it’s obvious that more will be explained as the series moves forward, it can make the viewing experience frustrating initially. Thankfully the pacing picks up nicely in the following three installments, as well as the sense of horror. There have already been a handful of classically creepy scenes. One involving an eight year old girl turned vampire may stick with you a few hours after viewing.
I’ve been pleased with the character development and diversity up to this point. The central character and apparent protagonist is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, played by Corey Stoll. Ephraim is the head of the CDC ground team of New York that is called to the airport scene in episode one. He already has a full plate before arriving as he is going through a divorce and battle to keep some sense of custody of his son. It seems to me that he is truly in an impossible position as his failure to spend more time with his son is imperative to having any success against this new “viral threat”. Dr. Goodweather is assisted by Nora Martinez, played by Mia Maestro, and Jim Kent, played by Sean Astin. He and Martinez appear to have some sort of hidden love affair going on that I imagine will become a main story focus later in the series. Admittedly, I have trouble watching Astin without seeing the asthmatic boy from The Goonies in my mind. My mental obstacles aside, I’m intrigued by the potential series of problems he could induce as the series progresses. Kent has already accepted a bribe from a vampire that allowed it’s master through CDC security. I like him because while he’s making unethical judgment calls, he’s motivated by the most positive of intentions as he fights to save the life of his dying spouse. That sort of internal dilemma always resonates with me as it shows how fragile our principles and values can be when challenged.
Another character I find intriguing thus far is Gus Elizalde, played by a very convincing Miguel Gomez. Gus is a Hispanic gangster who seems to be going against his better moral judgment in order to provide for his mother. He, like Jim Kent, is used as a pawn in the vampires’ strategy. Thomas Eichorst, played by Richard Sammel, appears to be the vampire foot soldier. He’s managed to utilize both Gus and Jim for sneaking the vamp master into New York. Del Toro’s creative prowess is demonstrated intricately as an episode opens with Thomas transforming from vampire to human form in a mirror. The fact that an actor covered in makeup and prosthetics is transforming into a normal looking human by putting on even more makeup is quite impressive to me, but I’ve been called easily impressed. Be that as it may, you can’t deny the level of skill necessary to pull off such a scene.
What I’ve found funny is that the vampires have been able to have humans do their bidding without actually revealing their true selves. I think it’s a commentary that money and individual interests can be much more persuasive and motivating than fear. At this point, the CDC and city officials aren’t even so much concerned about public safety as they are worried about politics and revenue. This has Dr. Goodweather in the most stressful position as he is having to fight political interests instead of the actual enemy. Or is the story going on to show the vampires aren’t the real antagonists? We shall see.
The aspect I’m enjoying most is the more feasible element of the vampire transformation. With all of the vamp material we’ve had thrown at us over the past several years, it’s somewhat refreshing to see victims going through a drawn out process instead of waking up the next morning with fangs. The storyline is treating the transformation as a viral illness, one where we see this parasitic invader take over it’s hosts in stages. There is a stomach turning scene in which Dr. Goodweather and his two assistants perform a dissection of a victim. The victim was one of the plane incident “survivors ” who had just completed his transformation before being killed in self-defense. The parasite had dissolved and rearranged his internal organs while forming new ones as well. As I mentioned earlier, this is a prime example of del Toro giving fairy tale material a more realistic element. I find that to be more effective and engrossing.
Of course there are more characters involved, but I feel I need to see more revealed about them and their plights. From an elderly pawn shop owner who has a history fighting the domestic invaders to a quirky, Russian rat exterminator, there are plenty of stories to be told. I will undoubtedly have plenty to say about them as the series progresses. It’s too early in the game to confirm if I’m a fan of this adaptation. I will say that it’s nice to see a horror series that seems to be deeper than the scares. That became clear to me upon hearing the final line of the pilot episode, “Love is our grace. Love….is our downfall.”. I’m excited to see what’s to come but after four episodes, I’m acceptably entertained. The Strain is worth checking out, but I’m not yet prepared to say it’s “must see tv”.
If you're a fan of vampire drama and horror, The Strain may be a breath of fresh air. Innovative creature effects combined with classic horror styling is what I'm enjoying most so far. This is the beginning so let's hope it only gets better.