Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review: FX's THE STRAIN, 1.1 - 'Night Zero' - vampires go viral

Wednesday, 16 July 2014
EICHORST: Love is going to guide them all back. To their homes. To their loved ones.
A passenger jet from Berlin lands at JFK International Airport with no signs of life and all the doors sealed shut, prompting CDC expert Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) to assess a possible contagion with his Canary Project team. Inside they discover all but four of the two hundred passengers are dead, and the fuselage interior's covered in weird stains only visible with UV light. Across town, an elderly Harlem pawnbroker called Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) hears of the situation on the nightly news, and is compelled to offer his extraordinary insight into the plane's fate.

The Strain is based on a trilogy of novels I haven't read, but have heard are of mixed quality. The key selling point of the books and this TV adaptation is the involvement of film-maker Guillermo del Toro, who's unarguably one of the greatest fantasy directors and stylists working today—responsible for Spanish-language classics like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, but also frothy U.S fare like Blade II, the Hellboy movies, and Pacific Rim. As co-creator of the source material and director of this very pilot, "Night Zero", I presume readers can rest assured it's a solid adaptation. Apparently, they even made lead actor Corey Stoll (House of Cards) wear a dark wig, because Eph wasn't bald in del Toro's mind. Okay?

For the unversed, The Strain is a vampire horror thriller sutured to a 24-esque outbreak drama. A ticking clock occasionally pops up on-screen, while a few actors from that Fox drama have roles (Roger Cross, Sean Astin, Leslie Hope). There's nothing new in equating vampirism with plague, but this pilot does a wonderful job developing a mythology that feels fresh and unusual. It helps that vampires in recent pop-culture have been metrosexual teens (Twilight) or sexy studs (True Blood, Vampire Diaries), so it's great to have a fanged threat that feels frightening, monstrous, and inscrutable.

You seriously don't want a love bite from The Strain's nine-foot hooded monster with brown billowy gown, hiding a leech-like tongue protuberance that drains bodies dry of blood. Neither do you want to come into contact with the pilot's invasive parasitic worms, and reanimated corpses compelled to spread their virus by recalling their loved-ones and heading home for "hugs". And I haven't even touched on elderly billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and his twisted alliance with mysterious Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel)—who appears to be a more traditional vampire, in league with Palmer because he can offer him immortality.
SETRAKIAN: He's back. I don't know if I have the strength to do it all over again.
As you'd expect coming from del Toro, The Strain's pilot is visually lush and unnerving when it wants to be. I love the design of the various creatures, and del Toro's signature use of begrimed colours gives everything a sumptuously sinister look (slime greens and mustard yellows, with ketchup red splashed across dark shadows). Where it falls down is with the the cheesy dialogue and a ho-hum back-story for Stoll's hero—a father going through marriage counselling, whose estranged wife now lives with a new fella, who actually seems like a decent guy, blah-blah-blah. Inevitably, del Toro's on safer ground whenever attention switches to the mysterious plane, the CDC's airport quarantine, and its doses of action and horror. There's a sequence in a morgue that's worth watching this for alone.

I also enjoyed seeing David Bradley (replacing John Hurt in an early version of the pilot) as this show's Van Helsing; a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who's confronted this supernatural menace before. It's a character not a million miles away from Hellboy's Trevor Buttenholm, actually, which perhaps explains why Hurt was first choice. But I'm glad Bradley eventually got the job over Hurt, because with the latter you know exactly what he'd bring to the show, whereas Bradley's a lesser-known quantity. He's rougher around the edges, actually, and it helps that his recent Game of Thrones appearances have made audiences somewhat suspicious of his motivations, too.

Overall, thanks to a strong start in terms of an inventive mythology, good scares, and beautiful cinematography, I'll definitely be watching more of The Strain. However, it's quite possible this series will get increasingly less enthralling the more we learn about the contagion, and see the vampires doing their thing. As a TV show, it surely won't offer the sense of scale its concept almost demands (society collapsing in the face of hungry vampires, a la World War Z), but will it have other strengths to lean on? Are the character compelling and rich enough to keep audiences watching? Can the story twist into some pleasing, unexpected shapes?

I sure hope so, but in many ways this pilot was the easiest hour to get right, as a silly B-movie horror with A-list talent. Will viewers still be excited and engrossed by episodes 7 and 8? That's when the real strain may start to show.

written by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan (based on their novel) | directed by Guillermo del Toro | FX | 13 July 2014