A caveat before we begin: I loved the book The Strain. It has that kind of slow, sinister creep that makes you turn on all the lights in your house while you’re reading.
Like his more famous work, Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s horror/vampire/we’reallgonnadie trilogy started out with a seemingly straightforward, if depressing premise (plane full of dead people on a JFK tarmac, girl and mother in the clutches of a sadistic fascist) and spun a web to pull you in. Slowly. Carefully.
He let’s you think that everything might turn out ok...and then slowly it unravels. And you learn about the heart. The history. The creeping terror.
The TV version has opted to forego the slow descent into horror for the tried and true approach - gore and noise. And a really daft voiceover on the intro and finale. Rather than let the audience lean forward slowly in their seats as they’re sucked into the story, the director grabs us and tries to force us to pay attention, to care. It doesn’t necessarily work, which is a great disappointment.
The Strain is a high concept thriller that tells the story of "Dr. Ephraim Goodweather," the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, wage war for the fate of humanity itself.The TV version opens onto the interior of the doomed plane. Following a distracting and hokey voiceover regarding the power of love, we follow a nice, capable flight attendant (she talks to a child and speaks French, naturally) to the back of the plane, where her hysterical colleague tells her there’s something living in the plane (of course there is, you’re in a horror show). Disbelief, followed by loud screaming ensues as something makes its way out from the storage by force. Yelling, screaming, and cut.
The book starts differently, with a horror story told to Setrakian ("Professor Abraham Setrakian is a dedicated (and perhaps fanatical) vampire hunter for over six decades. He is an expert on vampire biology and destruction, and recruits Eph to his cause." --Maggie Cats) by his grandmother, and a snippet of the black box recording. No screams. No loud bangs. Just a quiet, sinister creep. Why the show couldn’t have started there, with the next scene, of the air traffic controllers realizing something is horribly wrong, is beyond me. To borrow from the book, “...she had a fleeting yet palpable sensation of standing in the presence of a dragon-like beast. A sleeping dragon only pretending to be asleep, yet capable, at any moment of opening its eyes and its terrible mouth...And she understood it then, unequivocally: something in there was going to eat her...” Suspense, not violence.
It would have worked.
And then the scene with Setrakian and the thugs, followed by Setrakian and his weak heart. The thugs, yes, and necessary for later. But the heart? Why take all the mystery out of it? Putting that out in the first episode is like laying your cards on the table in Las Vegas. The book waited, before drawing us in to Setrakian’s hidden world behind the storefront. Let him keep a little mystery for goodness’ sake.
Some of the scenes are good - Dr. Goodweather pwning the other acronym agencies and securing first rights onto the plane, Setrakian pwning the thugs... But it just feels a little rushed, like the director wanted to hurry us to the next scene where they spoil things for the rest of the book. Hurry up and get to the power hungry guy with the dialysis machine. Hurry up and get to the ATC guy getting eaten/pounded by the Dementor. No suspense. Shock, not horror.
No seriously, the vampire is THIS big.
But all that said, I’ll keep watching. I feel like I owe it to the books. The story itself is good. The acting is spot on. Corey Stoll does a fantastic job, with hair this time, of the good but flawed guy trying to do his best in a bad situation.
Thankfully, unlike his House of Cards character, you think he might have a chance at it. Sean Astin/Samwise Gamgee, proves to be a bit less trustworthy than his Hobbity past, which is refreshing, though, again, draw it out a little, damnit. I keep expecting Setrakian to carry around a red-eyed cat instead of a cane sword, but that’s hardly his fault. The acting by the lead women has been good, if limited, and I could do without the tropes of the naughty librarian/scientist (glasses on = work, glasses off = let’s talk about our relationship) and the unfeeling/distant wife.
I’m just hoping that the director will drink less coffee, give his audience a bit more credit, and slow the heck down. Give me suspense. Give me horror. Give me nightmares.
The Strain airs Sundays at 10:00PM EST on FX. The first episode is available for viewing on the FX website.
You'll see a lot of similarities between these vampires and those of del Toro's Blade 2. Mostly that they are really really gross.