[13 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It’s not scary to scare you for no reason.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for first responders, sir?” Yeah, this might seem the reasonable question when facing an airplane crisis. They’re called “first” for a reason, right? But still, a pair of air traffic controllers at JFK stand before a plane that’s just landed and gone dead on the runway, wondering whether they should approach it, knowing that an unknown terrible event has occurred.
Such clueless, non-intuitive individuals tend to take up space in scary stories, so you can instruct them in your mind (“Don’t go in there!”) while anticipating the arrival of the smarter, more intuitive heroes. It’s only a couple of minutes before The Strain delivers those heroes, in the form of the unfortunately named CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll).
Confronting a government agent who’s about to order men with guns inside the plane, Eph provides instruction. “You don’t like terrorists? Try negotiating with a virus,” he begins, as the agents (no longer) in charge listen and his associates Nora (Mía Maestro) and Jim (Sean Astin) exchange bemused looks: like you, they’ve heard a version of this this speech before.
“A virus exists only to find a carrier and reproduce,” Eph goes on, while lights flash and sirens wail in the background. “It has no political views, it has no religious beliefs, it has no cultural hang-ups, it ha no respect for a badge, it has no concept of time or geography. It might as well be the middle ages except for the convenience of hitching a ride on a metal tube flying from meal to meal to meal.” Aha, he winds up: “That’s how a plague begins. So you still want to be the first one through the door?”
At once exposition and entertainment, this monologue sets up pretty much everything he’s got wrong about the show to come. Based on a trilogy of novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (which also spawned a set of comics), the TV show features a virus as Eph describes, but that is also embodied as vampires.
The vampires come with a Master (Robin Atkin Downes) and an insidiously wealthy human enabler Palmer (Jonathan Hyde). Thus, this particular virus is also attached to all the interests Eph says it won’t have, from politics to motive to a sense of time and place. These interests align this virus and these vampires with the grimmest of precedents, Stoker’s Dracula and Murnau’s Nosferatu, whose deadly infections are initiated by real estate purchases, permitting them to cross geographical and other borders.
Here again, the Master’s journey from Berlin includes the transport of his coffin and all sorts of arrangements made with Knock-like helpers, including the former Treblinka commandant Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), who must each day put on a fake nose and neck and makeup in order to present himself to humans, on whose materials (money, vehicles, addresses) the vampires yet depend. (Eichhorst looks forward to a day when he needn’t disguise himself, which means he hasn’t contemplated what happens when, as Stephen Dorff so memorably put in the Blades, the food runs out, or the vampires have a plan in place for harvesting that food without needing humans to live on and reproduce themselves.)
This dependence means that for the time being, the humans have a chance, as long as they might thwart some vampire step along the way. As The Stain begins, however, the vampires look awfully unthwarted.
Still, the show establishes some virus and vampire fighters in its early episodes, including Eph, of course, who doesn’t take too long to recognize that this virus isn’t like others. You see he’ll be aided by Nora as well as a couple of guys who for now appear in separate storylines, the gang member who love his mother Gus (Miguel Gomez) and the exterminator who hates rats Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand). The team’s source of wisdom is former Treblinka prisoner Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), now running a Harlem pawnshop while nurturing a particular and very personal grudge against the Master.
The series takes some time to put this team together, even in the same area of New York. And while you’re waiting for that plot turn, you’re treated to a series of lurid images, from yucky to jolting. As it turns out, the virus transforms victims into inhuman shells, losing not only their useless hearts and lungs but their genitals, too. These are not sexy vampires, but straight-up monsters.
An autopsy reveals organs replaced by viscous, snaky other pieces that tend to jump out of the victims’ mouths in order to create new victims. The first victims are passengers, which is, of course, apt, as like all virus characters, they go home to infect/attack their families and neighbors and, in the case of the first-class-traveling and typically self-involved rock star, Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy), groupies.
Each of these newly minted monsters is creepy and distressing in its own way, basic body horrors that range from sweet children turned ravenous to lawyers turned extra-venal. One unnervingly comic storyline during the early going concerns the nerd Ansel (Nikolai Witschl), who terrifies his wife Ann Marie (Alex Paxton-Beesley), but not so much that she doesn’t make a choice between him and their insufferable neighbor (Damin Baker) that’s simultaneously dreadful and reasonable.
Such choices—dire, resonant—must be made repeatedly in The Strain, and they make for a semblance of emotional complexity. While the show focuses on the sorts of scares for which del Toro is famous, gooey and noisy, it also presents such nightmarish experiences in a world that’s familiar enough. The monstrous vampires are calculating as well as instinctive, the monstrous humans are worse. Yes, they’re easy targets, from Nazis and corporate heads to politicians and rock stars, and they know how to maintain power.
“A good story always trumps the truth,” Palmer explains, by way of manipulating the press, knowing at least as much about disinformation as anyone at NSA or the CIA. If The Strain‘s scares aren’t new or deep, they’re cleverly allusive—signs of what’s scary every day.