As you can tell from my infrequent posting, I haven’t had a lot of time to watch TV or movies over the last few months. It has been an enormously busy summer that has included trips to Toronto, Washington DC, Baltimore (for 4 hours), and Cincinnati, as well as a new venture. This is in addition to greatly increased hours at my job and continued freelance work for movies.com (I had LOTS of fun doing 1984 marketing tie-ins to 2014 summer movies with John Gholson). That said, I have had time to fall head over heels in love with Guillermo del Toro’s jaunt into the world of television- The Strain.
The Strain succeeds on so many levels where other horrory TV shows have failed. Unlike True Blood, del Toro is hell-bent on restoring the original charm to the vampire mythos (more on this in a minute). Unlike The Walking Dead, The Strain wraps the viewer up in the story and characters. While I’m a fan of American Horror Story, I can readily admit some of its flaws. The Strain doesn’t dabble in the hypersexed world of AHS, nor does it throw every creepy trope at the wall hoping that anything will stick (again, fully acknowledging that AHS does it effectively). No, del Toro’s show has a laser focus on vampire lore.
Anyone and everyone who loves horror has seen the sad state of affairs for vampires in the last few decades. Once Christopher Lee took off the fangs, the monster was handed over first to Anne Rice and her tortured vampires. Then, of course, Twilight took it to a whole new level with sparkly pre-teen garbage. The vampire was slowly robbed of its danger. Enter The Strain, which presents the vampire as pure monstrosity. The vampires in del Toro’s universe look like Nosferatu. They are rooted, at least for now, in eastern European folklore, constantly referred to as “strigoi”- a Romanian term. The 9-foot tall demon who has unleashed these vampires on the world is not sexy, nor is he tortured. He is hell on earth, creating a legion of the undead to inflict his cold vision upon the world. He is known only as The Master, and much of his story intersects with Dracula. Del Toro has returned the vampire to its once lofty perch by infusing it with a healthy dose of what it was all about in the first place.
Lest you think it’s microwaved Bela Lugosi, let me allay your fears. The vampires in del Toro’s world also cover completely unique and new territory. The show goes to great pains to earn its name. It is a show about a parasitic virus, a strain that slowly infects and takes over its human host. While these vampires suck blood, burn in the sun, and can be wounded by silver, they also have a fearsome worm-like tongue to help them do their feeding. Like the creatures they’re based on- the common tick- they defecate (ammonia) while they eat. The transformation is grim and put on painful display. Human body parts that are no longer needed simply fall off, and in one case it does so in the most cringeworthy fashion imaginable. The heroes aren’t men of God or even dusty old professors. The heroes who fight these vampires are CDC employees and pest control technicians. It’s perfectly apt in The Strain‘s universe.
Most of all, The Strain is fun. It’s pure, unadulterated joy if you revel in gore, blood, and monsters. The incomparable Matthew Zoller Seitz hit it out of the park in his review for the series premiere. He compared it to finding a b-movie horror gem, referring to it as “stupid and trashy but well-made — something that had personality and a sense of fun.” The dialogue is hilariously on-the-nose at times, exposition is obvious, and the behavior of many of the characters is downright absurd. But none of that matters because del Toro is like the dog in your backyard, rolling on his back in his own feces in sheer ecstasy. Admit it. You want to be as happy as that dog, you want to share in that dog’s fun. Ok, maybe that’s a harsh analogy. The Strain is not feces. But I think the point is taken.
Equally fun are the questions that keep cropping up. Every time one is answered, another appears. The pilot episode features David Bradley (best known to me as Walder Frey on Game of Thrones and the mumbly-talking bomb owner in Hot Fuzz) feeding blood to a heart in a jar and speaking to it in affectionate tones. He has a Holocaust tattoo. Gradually, we’ve learned about all of this, but so many questions remain. Some vampires talk, others are grunting parasites. Some infected people are overtaken by the parasite in a matter of days while others can hold out longer. Nazis are involved and we’re still finding out how deeply, along with some black ops vampires. Some of the first infected were chosen specifically to live (and die) with the parasite, while others keeled off immediately. There is corporate and government intrigue at every level, but not in any sort of intrusive way. It’s simply a garnish to the main dish and it makes you want to know more.
If you enjoy drama, scripted TV, horror, and del Toro’s boyish love of all things creepy, then you owe it to yourself to check out The Strain on FX.