Vampires and killer viruses rule the Sunday night TV schedule this summer. At 9PM, we have ‘True Blood’ on HBO concurrent with ‘The Last Ship’ on TNT. Then at 10PM comes FX’s ‘The Strain’, which slams the two genres together. With the backing of esteemed director Guillermo del Toro, could this be a breakout genre hit?
The show is based on a book series co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – which I imagine probably amounts to del Toro coming up with the concept and asking Hogan to work out the details. I read the first book right after it was published and found it to be a half-baked collection of vampire clichés and horror tropes, which was obviously written all along with the intention of eventually becoming a screenplay. I didn’t bother to read any further. Based on what I remember, the pilot episode of the TV series (called ‘Night Zero’) seems to be pretty faithful to the plotting of the book. However, it plays better in live action with the benefit of del Toro’s direction.
Corey Stoll from ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’ stars as Ephraim Goodweather (ugh, that’s a name only a Hollywood screenwriter could love), a CDC doctor whose attention is divided between the demands of his job and his failing marriage. Eph is pulled out of his latest marriage counseling session by an emergency at JFK airport. A passenger jet from England landed on the tarmac and immediately shut off all lights and power. The control tower has been unable to contact the pilot or flight crew. Homeland Security suspects terrorism, but Goodweather convinces them that the CDC takes priority in case of viral contagion. He and his partner Nora (Mia Maestro from ‘Alias’) suit up and head inside. What they find is a plane full of corpses who appear to have died suddenly, and without any visible distress.
Of over 200 passengers and crew, only four people survived: the pilot, an obnoxious lawyer lady, a cocky rock star, and one seemingly average guy. All of them blacked out and none remembers what happened.
In investigating this crisis, Eph discovers strange worms on the plane that were carriers for the contagion. During autopsies, the CDC coroner finds tiny incision marks on each victim’s throat. In the plane’s cargo hold was a 9-foot tall coffin that was not on the flight manifest. It’s filled with dirt. The coffin mysteriously disappears, and security camera footage shows it simply vanishing in a blink as an ominous blur whips into the frame and carries it away.
While the doctors and scientists try to find a rational explanation for all these events, an elderly pawnbroker named Abraham Setrakian (a role played by David Bradley from ‘Game of Thrones’ but almost certainly written for John Hurt) claims to know exactly what’s happening. He’s obviously the Van Helsing figure in this modernized retelling of ‘Dracula’. He has a secret lair beneath his pawn shop filled with antique weapons and supernatural paraphernalia, including a still-beating vampire heart in a jar. Goodweather dismisses Setrakian as a crackpot at first, but as the case gets weirder and weirder, he’s forced to reconsider his belief system.
By the end of the extra long 100-minute pilot episode, we learn that the coffin contained a scary vampire monster with a predilection for smashing victims’ heads. Its entry into the United States was facilitated by an evil corporation called the Stoneheart Group, which blackmailed Goodweather’s CDC assistant (Sean Astin) into letting the coffin be smuggled out of the airport and driven into the city. The four survivors from the plane are quarantined while the dead bodies are stored in a makeshift morgue at the airport. They suddenly revive (even the ones who’d been sliced open for autopsy) and kill the dipshit CDC coroner – after which they also slip past the tight security cordon and return to their homes.
As mentioned, Guillermo del Toro directed the pilot episode, and infused it with very slick production values and creepy atmosphere. The brief appearance of the vampire is perhaps a little cheesy, but it’s nice that del Toro at least wants it to be a scary monster, not an annoying teen heartthrob or an oversexed immortal dreamboat. The episode’s writing is serviceable, if nothing particularly original. (It borrows heavily not only from ‘Dracula’, but also from del Toro’s own ‘Blade II’).
I’m a little worried that the quality may drop off when del Toro leaves the series in other hands. However, show-runner Carlton Cuse (‘Lost’, ‘Bates Motel’) deserves some benefit of the doubt. I’m on board to watch more.