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Guillermo Del Toro's 'The Strain' Is Scary Fun, Surprisingly Smart (TRAILER)

Reviews
by David Chute
July 15, 2014 11:46 AM
3 Comments
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Corey Stoll as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather in "The Strain"
FX Corey Stoll as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather in "The Strain"

The loathsome vampire morphology that horror auteur Guillermo del Toro has dreamed up for his breakneck television series "The Strain" (FX), based on a series of novels he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan, is not something that could be tweaked to create a swoony YA romance. More like the invasive predators in "Alien," these vampires seem to be modeled on some actual horrors of nature, such as the parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which invades and takes control of the bodies of ants, transforming their innards into new spores. "The Strain" is not in any way a tale of the supernatural. It is a science fiction story about encounters with a new parasitic species. 

Some condescending early reviews have used the code word "pulp" to suggest that while "The Strain" may be good fun it has nothing on its tiny mind except making us jump and shudder. A couple of writers have swooned, quite rightly, over pilot director del Toro's color drenched and color-coded images. But they are not decorative. Their heightened vividness suggests that a different range of perception applies when we venture out of the human world into the vamp dimension. (Del Toro talks about decoding his color scheme and other matters in this excellent interview.) But the terrors evoked by "The Strain" seem more profound than those of most horror films, the cold touch of the fundamental amorality of natural processes.

Presenting vampirism as an illness, spreading at top speed like the pandemics in recent zombie stories, is not a fresh idea. It was one of the first variations cooked up by writers hoping to modernize what was originally a moralistic sub-genre of the 19th-century gothic novel. Richard Matheson's classic SF noir novella "I Am Legend" (1954) is probably the most famous of these revisionist accounts, giving rise to three official film adaptations, "The Last Man of Earth" (1964), "The Omega Man" (1971) and the eponymous Will Smith vehicle of 2007. David Cronenberg's "Rabid" (1977) stood apart in presenting vampirism as a venereal disease. The gorgeousness of del Toro's images in "The Strain" suggests that he, like Cronenberg, finds these purely biological and heartless processes both terrifying and beautiful.


"The Strain" is strongest when it is most ruthless, weakest when it appears to backtrack on its most transgressive impulses. The normality of the human lives of the characters is insisted upon a bit desperately, as if without this the filmmakers might be accused of nihilism. The clearest example is a woefully limp subplot in which our swashbuckling CDC hero, played with effortless charisma by "House of Cards" breakout performer Corey Stoll, tries to win back custody of his estranged son. How banal is it? Seems he was always running off to prevent a pandemic and, as a result, was "never there for us." In the pilot he never says, "You knew I was a forensic epidemiologist when you married me," but perhaps he'll get around to it in a later episode.

3 Comments

  • Jime | July 17, 2014 1:11 AMReply

    It's nice to see that some people actually gets what is being done in this show. I for one can't wait to see it through to the end...

  • sue s | July 16, 2014 12:19 AMReply

    Here is the rest of the season: Wife's boyfriend will die because he is stupid (and an ass), Sean Astin will die while saving someone important because he did a big time no no, head cdc guy will die - also because he is stupid, no one other than the dr. will listen to the old man until it's almost too late, main character/cdc dr. will save (possibly, because she will probably die anyway) wife and (definitely) son and will end up w/ Mia Maestro after he saves the world.

    btw, the characters looked like zombies - not vampires, and it is really nice to see that the bad guys are not russians or arabs for once.

    See, I saved you all from having to watch the rest of the series. You're welcome.

  • Nick | July 17, 2014 2:14 PM

    You must be a joy at parties

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