In 2010 and 2011 Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan published a trilogy – “The Strain,” “The Fall,” and “The Night Eternal” – about a vampire infestation in New York City. Now the two authors have created a 13-episode TV series based upon the first novel, and if the pilot is any indication of what is to come, this should be a terrific fright-fest.
As the story begins, we are taken aboard a jetliner bound from Berlin to New York City, and suddenly several of the crewmembers think they hear some mysterious noises coming from the hold on the plane. Of course we don’t find out what it is, but we soon realize that it must have been something fairly significant because when the plane touches down at John F. Kennedy International Airport, it just sits there on the tarmac completely dark.
After considering their options, airport officials decide to call in the Center for Disease Control, and we meet Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), head of the CDC Canary Team in New York, as he and team member Dr. Nora Matinez (Mia Maestro) suit up and board the aircraft. Much to their horror they discover a plane full of corpses with no apparent cause of death visible. As they continue their search of the aircraft, Eph and Nora find a huge wooden box with carvings on it in the hold. No, I won’t tell you what’s inside.
Now while all this excitement is occurring at JFK, an old man named Prof. Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) is watching the news reports from the airport on television in the office of his pawnshop. From his reaction it’s obvious he knows what has happened aboard the plane, and a few moments later he mutters, “He’s back. I don’t know if I have the strength to do it all over again. This time I cannot fail.”
Obviously much more happens in the first episode, but I won’t spoil the fun by revealing anything else. What I will say, however, is this show looks as if it is going to be a terrific horror series. It manages to suck (Pun intended.) you in from its opening moment and keep you riveted until it ends. The tension and suspense reach almost unbearable levels, and yet when the show is over, you want more.
The major characters (There may be more to come.) introduced in the pilot are most interesting and all of the actors portraying them are exceptional. In addition to his work at the CDC, Eph is dealing with a crisis in his marriage, which may turn into a subplot. Stoll, whom you may remember for his stellar portrayal of Peter Russo in “House of Cards,” dons a hairpiece for his role as Eph, and he’s outstanding in the part.
One of the most interesting characters in the series is going to be Setrakian, whom we first meet when a couple of young thugs come into his shop with the intention of robbing him at gunpoint. What these two scumbags don’t know is that Setrakian survived the Holocaust, and so he knows how to take care of himself. This scene tells us a lot about him, and Bradley has been cast perfectly in the role.
Additional notable cast members in the first episode are Maestro in the key part of Eph’s assistant, Nora, and Sean Astin as Jim Kent, an administrator the CDC. And some of the other characters introduced in the pilot obviously will evolve more as the series continues.
The key character in the show so far is Eph, and in an online interview with Chris E. Hayner of Zap2it Stoll explained what drew him to the project was the opportunity to work with del Toro and to play a character who really evolves during the series. He also revealed how he and del Toro worked to develop Eph.
“The fact that the character changes so much. It used to be on a TV show you were just one character and you had to stay that way until you went into syndication. Now FX is willing and excited to let this show have a specific lifespan so you’re telling a story.
“In terms of Eph, he (del Toro) kept on talking about Orson Welles as a role model. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, and then I read his biography. It has more to do with his biography than his filmography, but he was this boy genius who was a winner at everything he did until he wasn’t.
“He (Eph) was incredibly precocious and incredibly successful. Then suddenly, his marriage is falling apart and he’s encountering something in his work life that he has no context, no skill, to deal with. It’s shattering. It’s this sort of journey of letting go of control and of never actually being able to understand what’s happening. He sort of gets to a point of pure reaction. That’s central to Eph’s character. This man of science, of empirical proof, forced to face this phenomenon he can’t explain.”
In addition to the fine acting and superb sets, “The Strain” is going to be shot in a rather interesting way as del Toro explained in a recent interview.
“Basically I’m trying to do what I do in my movies which is to show it as a reality, but as a reality that is stylized. It’s not like “CSI or “The Wire.” It’s real, but it feels a little stylized. But the way the camera work will be is very realistic. We want to keep the camera very documentary even if the look of the show is not. The look of the show is very designed. The style of the camera and the storytelling will be very loose. It will evolve from that feel of reality, and little by little we want to evolve into more stylish, horror feel that requires smoother camera moves, more suspense and atmosphere-driven moments so it will be a mixture. I don’t think that mixture has been seen a lot on TV.”
I must confess that I was never much into vampires until way back in 1975, when I first read Stephen King’s incredible novel “’Salem’s Lot.” That story was so realistic that for quite awhile after I finished it, I found myself ritualistically locking my doors and windows before bed, spreading garlic on the bedroom floor, wearing a crucifix to bed, and sleeping with a wooden stake and a hammer under my pillow.
I finally came to my senses years ago and haven’t really given vampirism too much thought. Until now that is. After watching the first episode of “The Strain,” which earns the final score of a plasmatic nine, I may just have to break out the hammer and stake again, go buy lots of garlic, and see whether I can find my crucifix. I just hope my bizarre behavior won’t put too much of a strain on my marriage.