Contains spoilers for the pilot episode.
Vampires truly are the supernatural gift that never stops giving: they simply won’t die, and there’s more of them around in film, television and literature now than at any time ever before in the past. Even celebrated author David Mitchell is riffing off them for his new opus The Bone Clocks for heaven’s sake! Fangs have become almost a cliché with pretty much every avenue explored to death and so it’s hard to get too excited about yet another take on the bloodsuckers. Surely there can be nothing new or interesting to say about them anymore?
Movie director Guillermo del Toro certainly knows his horror movie history better than most, and his vampire credentials are impeccable (Cronos, Blade II.) It’s immediately clear that in this new series based on his bestselling novel co-written with Chuck Hogan he’s determined to restore the bloodsuckers to their default factory settings – which is to say, dead scary. These aren’t your cuddly, high-school-going, boyfriend-material vampires from Twilight but rather the bestial and deadly variety more akin to FW Murnau’s unforgettable Nosferatu.
Del Toro’s intentions are evident from the first episode of the mini series, “Night Zero”, which is in all practical regards a retelling of the classic nineteenth century tale featuring the doomed Russian schooner Demeter. In The Strain, the ghost ship running aground in Whitby Harbour is replaced by a very modern transatlantic jetliner that lands at JFK Airport in New York and then promptly goes dark. Investigators from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention board the plane and find 206 dead bodies, and they don’t have a clue what killed them. The real give away clue for the viewers comes in the form of a container full of earth found in the ship’s hold, which will be a very familiar trope from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel.
Where Stoker’s novel utilised a certain journalistic authenticity by being comprised of diary entries, phonograph recordings and news articles, The Strain updates the method and uses the scientific process to make the otherworldly feel disturbingly real. The attention is primarily on CDC agent Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his two colleagues Dr Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro) and Jim Kent (Sean Astin) with the events of the first feature-length episode taking place in a constrained ten hour overnight period at the airport after the plane’s arrival. However the story does also branch out with intriguing forays to the corporate offices of the Stoneheart Group where dying billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is tended to by his security factotum Mr Fitzwilliams (Roger Cross), and visited by the distinctly cold-blooded Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) who is busy arranging for the retrieval of the box of earth from JFK’s storage facility. There’s also the strange elderly pawn shop owner and Holocaust survivor Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley in a role originally filled by John Hurt, giving it a double-Who connection) who seems to know more than he should about the whole affair – even if Goodweather is currently too busy to listen.
This set-up allows for a tense, claustrophobic feel to the opening episode while still providing enough material to maintain the interest and seed mysteries for future development, without allowing the story to drag for a single minute. The focus is primarily on atmosphere and character: an early scene in which Goodweather attends a marriage counselling session with his estranged wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) and son Zach (Ben Hyland) could easily have killed the momentum stone dead with the usual assortment of soap operatic clichés but somehow manages to get around it with good writing and playing that succeeds in establishing some background to the characters without overstaying its welcome. Overall then the pilot succeeds better than almost any US television pilot I can recall seeing in at least the last five years, thanks to not being in too much of an indecent hurry to display its wares and tip its hand too soon, happy instead to tease and tantalise.
Characteristic of this, the main attraction – the vampire itself – is seen only briefly in one single scene. It’s a scene that shows del Toro isn’t about to tone down his horror just because he’s on the small screen: the murder of a JFK worker is as stomach-turningly brutal and bloody as anything you’ll have seen in The Walking Dead and is capped off by an eye-catchingly inhuman exit by the perpetrator.
As well as a final coda which reminded me strongly of Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of the Steven King novel Salem’s Lot, the other sequence that will impress itself into the memory of viewers is set in a temporary morgue where a coroner is making headway into the cause of death of the 206 air passengers. The appearance and threat of parasitic worms from one victim’s excised organs distracts him so that he doesn’t see that behind him the other assembled corpses are busy reanimating themselves and looking a little peckish; all the time the unfolding events are set to the upbeat cheery soundtrack of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” showing that del Toro has lost none of his sense of jet-black humour on TV.
As you’d expect with an accomplished movie director like del Toro at the helm for the opening episode, The Strain looks absolutely wonderful, as polished and stylised as any big-budget feature film. It’s the use of vivid colour that most captures the attention with intense reds, greens and yellows flooding the frame to give it a vibrant feel a world away from the usual drab and grimy palettes used for this type of subject these days. A particularly striking example is the CDC team’s initial search of the ghost plane, which is lit in glacial blue tones making the interior itself seem like a corpse, but at the same time offset by the vivid orange faceplate lighting of the Hazmat suits worn by Goodweather and Martinez.
If the series can continue to this standard of production, and also husband its secrets without getting too convoluted or overcooked while at the same time maintaining the sense of dread and terror over the next 12 weeks then we’ll have a top-notch new genre show to follow. It’s made a terrific start and it’s great to have vampires be properly scary again. I’m looking forward to the second episode of this show more than I have for any other new series that I’ve seen this year, and crossing my fingers that the standard does indeed remain high.
The Strain airs in the UK on the digital channel UK Watch on Wednesdays at 9pm. The first season will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 26 2014, making it exceptionally appropriate festive fare.