TV Review: The Strain

Tuesday 28 October 2014 by

The Strain: a season-long review

Season One spoilers ahead

The Strain, Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan, TV, Horror

Modern masters of horror and all things supernatural, Guillermo del Toro and fellow writer Chuck Hogan have teamed up once more, this time recruiting Carlton Cuse too, to bring their writing to the TV screen – The Strain is the adaptation of their story of the same name, a tale of vampirism and viral outbreak.

A mere thirteen episodes long, the series follows Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his team from the Center for Disease Control as he investigates a mysterious plague that comes in on a plane, and spreads rapidly across New York City, turning people in to animalistic, zombie-like creatures that like to drink blood, all led by an ancient master.

Overall, this is a good blend of horror stories – plague, zombie, vampire, creepy worm things that wriggle through your skin and multiply. The artful twining of stories – from Setrakian (David Bradley) and his lifelong revenge mission, Ephraim Goodweather and his fractured family, and Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), the ratcatcher with a dark sense of humour, to vicious Nazi Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel) and bad-boy with a good heart, Gus (Miguel Gómez) – is pure del Toro gold.

If you like del Toro and Hogan, you’re going to adore The Strain. It blends reality with horror-fantasy, making every moment feel authentic. Even the development of the vampire-virus feels real. The series draws you in with an outbreak-like storyline, and then adds the out-and-out fantastical villain to terrify you.

These vampires aren’t sparkly, there’s no sexualised undertones or gothic romanticism, they are just plain terrifying, and extraordinarily hard to kill. This is what horror should be when it’s done properly – the kind of thing to keep you up at night. It isn’t even the gore (which is excessive but impressive in most episodes), because even that is done with some sort of purpose. It’s the haunting horror – the psychological dread that comes with every human fear.

No one is safe, as is proved from the very first, and the clever mix of an apocalyptic city filled with people trying to ignore it, and the carefully rationalised viral outbreak story, has legs that will keep this going for seasons to come. Everyone can claim to be bored of horror – vampires and zombies and diseases have all been done – but not like this. Not all at once.

If I was disappointed by anything, I was disappointed when the master’s face was finally revealed. I would have rather a faceless enemy, or something truly terrifying, than the strange, bat-like and rubbery monster that we are given. It seems like a tragedy mask rather than the face of a demon. And there are some threads that feel loosely thrown in; significant characters are whipped off screen without so much as a “see you later”, and there is no closure, whilst others seem to get more screen time than their storyline needs. Then there are the mysterious characters that appear and disappear; the Luss family for example, is an abruptly aborted story, whilst the monster in the hood appears without explanation and disappears with even less logic. The beauty of del Toro and Hogan, however, is the fact that all will become clear soon enough, in the next season or any thereafter. There is a grand design, even if we can’t see it yet.

Stoll is a good lead character, but in truth I was more in love with Bradley, Durand and Mía Maestro (playing Nora) by the end of it. Their story arcs were tougher, their character growth that much more tense, and their on-screen chemistry flawless. Unfortunately, I was as unenchanted with Jonathan Hyde’s Eldritch Palmer as I was enchanted with the others (he felt a bit superfluous, despite how brilliant Hyde is!)

As a bad guy, Sammel is sublime. He is the right balance between cold and calculating, and mad and bad, with an eerie smile that you never want to be on the receiving end of. You can see the success of horror in the success of their antagonists, and this is one of the best in a while. Eichorst is a sadist, borderline masochist and vicious bully, with a long memory and a taste for the twisted. And yet, you can see his weaknesses, even if other characters can’t, and it is these cracks in his evilness that make him so compelling.

And the finale, no great fanfare there, was dark and horrifying and everything you need to leave you breathless and yet needing more. Thank goodness there’s a season two coming in 2015! This is a brilliant series, something that has been lacking ever since The Walking Dead a whole five seasons ago (who else is enjoying season five though!?)

Did you watch The Strain? What did you think?

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