When the advertisements for FX’s The Strain, adapted from the trilogy by horror maestro Guillermo del Toro and thriller author Chuck Hogan, first came out, getting a fair amount of slack for one particularly gross piece of key art depicting a parasitic worm crawling out of a woman’s eyeball, I didn’t feel creeped out so much as cautiously optimistic. In this age of excessively grim dramas straining for a relevance and deeper meaning that’s just not there (cough, cough, Leftovers), I think we could all do with a series that purposefully revels in the ridiculous.
And though that ad was stomach-churning, to me it held the promise of a genre show that, while icky, was content to embrace its comic-book-like roots. Now that The Strain has arrived, I can happily confirm that it is that genre show, filled with plenty of midnight-movie moments of gleeful grotesquerie and knowingly B-movie-esque acting and dialogue. But it’s also enjoyably cinematic (thank del Toro, who works behind the camera to steep the pilot in mounting dread), refreshingly modern and very, very compelling. That showrunner Carlton Cuse, del Toro and Hogan (both of whom penned “Night Zero” and are also exec-producing) have found a way to balance The Strain‘s horror aspirations with its medical thriller set-up (think Contagion with blood-suckers) is mightily impressive and bodes well for the series’ future, as it aims to adapt one book from del Toro and Hogan’s trilogy per season.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Looking at the pilot episode on its own terms, “Night Zero” is a chilling, captivating and highly entertaining hour of television. It works quickly to establish an unsettling, end-of-days vibe, opening on a commercial jet from Berlin coming in for a landing at JFK International Airport (the smartly specific settings within New York City throughout The Strain add to the realism). Protagonists Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), both researchers for the CDC along with Jim Kent (Sean Astin), discover when they board the plane that everyone on board appears dead. We soon learn that the plane was carrying very suspicious cargo – a nine-foot wooden box (“a coffin,” the characters take to calling it pretty quickly) decorated with vaguely satanic, hand-carved etchings, and filled with (wouldn’t you know it) dirt. Where The Strain deviates from Bram Stoker’s grand-daddy of all vampire novels, however, is that the dirt is packed full of translucent, parasitic worms, which prove all too eager to get under the skin of any person within reach.
Adding those gross little plague-carriers into the narrative serves to transform The Strain from a straight-up vampire tale into a more relevant plague thriller. Though there are some villainous big-wigs waiting in the wings – including wealthy Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and the nefarious, seemingly non-human Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), both of whom had a hand in bringing that box and its occupants to New York City and who do a fair amount of hand-rubbing in anticipation of events to come – The Strain seems more interested in painting vampirism as a pandemic. The series wisely doesn’t ignore the goofiness of a virus that turns its hosts into blood-sucking monsters, instead embracing it. Its characters don’t appear crushed by the terrifying possibility that a new, mysterious virus has arrived in their city so much as they are eager to get on the case – more like Scooby Doo detectives than jittery, worried scientists.
They may change their tune, however, when they learn exactly what they’re going up against. By the end of “Night Zero,” many of the deceased passengers have come back to life in the morgue, tearing a poor coroner to bloody pieces (to the strains of “Sweet Caroline,” natch) then taking to the streets to find and pass the strain along to their loved ones. Elsewhere, a massive, cloak-wearing creature (the same one that attacks flight attendants on the dead plane in the show’s very first jump-out scare) successfully erases every last “sexy vampire” trope of the past ten years by lunging out of the dark at a poor air traffic controller, graphically using a fleshy proboscis to stab the guy’s neck and drain him of all blood, then snapping his neck and using its mighty hands to literally flatten his head into a bloody pulp. Oh – and then taking off with super-human speed into the night. Cue cheers from all the horror aficionados in the crowd, as one thing that The Strain seems perfectly poised to do is bring the pulpy gore of the best cult-classic monster movies back to television.