Checking in with The Strain: “Runaways” (S1, E5 review)

Call that a nail gun? THIS is a nail gun! Eph lets Ansel the vampire have it (image via TV.com (c) FX)
Call that a nail gun? THIS is a nail gun! Eph lets Ansel the vampire have it (image via TV.com (c) FX)

 

I will be the first to admit, and here I paraphrase Winnie the Pooh (yes Winnie the Pooh) rather loosely, that I am a horror-watching bear of little courage.

While I have acclimated to the zombies of The Walking Dead, and even the frenetically-fast undead of Helix do not faze me greatly anymore, I am not generally a heaving consumer of horror.

And where I am, it tends to the kind of horror that is rich in implication and sleight-of-hand, where your mind and what it is capable of conjuring are far more frightening than what is portrayed on the screen.

It is a clever storytelling tactic that forces the viewer, much like a book reader lost in the world of their own fecund imagination, to fill in the dots, one used with great effect in the past by Guillermo del Toro in films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage.

A tactic which, by the way, seems to be largely, and disappointingly, absent in The Strain, five episodes in.

 

 

 

This is not to say that “Runaways” was a failure of an episode; far from it.

It is simply that any idea of leaving the viewer to bring forth the demons of their own imaginative unknown seem to have been jettisoned in favour of graphic, in-your-face monster violence with stingers and shrieking the order of the day.

And while that is effective as far as it goes – witnessing Ansel (Nikolai Witschl), a man who suspected something was wrong and chained himself inside his shed to protect his wife and kids from the inevitable harm he knew he’d cause them lunge wildly and animalisticly at Eph (Corey Stoll) and Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) was a tour de force of white-knuckle chair-gripping suspense – it doesn’t leave much room to move in terms of driving the story forward.

Yes, we know the vampires are evil, yes we know they will instinctively feed and cannot be reasoned with driven by genetic desire to survive and prosper alone, and yes we know they feed with messy, blood-spilling impunity.

(In the face of such obvious menacing horror, it amazed me that Eph still seemed to be having the odd case of the Scullys, questioning whether Setrakian, who seems to know his stuff, was really sure about the nature of the threat; you got the feeling this virus-obsessed Doubting Thomas need the Master (Robert Maillet) to come up, shake hands and tell him directly.)

But when that is all said and done, what really is left?

What I realised the next morning after viewing “Runaways” was that, improved though the series is, it still lacks some sense of urgency, of impending doom.

Once you peel away the gory, distracting horror, you realise there is precious little in the way of a sense of the apocalypse approaching.

 

It was true that Ansel had seen better days, his new skincare regime not really doing much for his pale complexion (image via Nerd Core Movement (c) FX)
It was true that Ansel had seen better days, his new skincare regime not really doing much for his pale complexion (image via Nerd Core Movement (c) FX)

 

Part of this is due to how spread out everyone seems to be at the moment.

Eph is with Setrakian, going house to house, “killing” the undead with a kickass nailgun loaded with silver bullets and even eating omelettes after one kill since a guy’s gotta eat, screaming vampires or no right?

Meanwhile Nora (Mía Maestro), fresh from stomping off in dismay last episode at the idea they kill the sufferers of this latest disease, rather than rescuing them as is their usual bailiwick as doctors of the Centres for Disease Control, went to visit her mother Mariela (Anne Betancourt) at a nursing home only to find the vampires came a-callin’.

And what of the pest controller Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), a suave rat catcher who tells it like it is, even if it isn’t to the customer’s liking?

(I suspect he and Eph will get along just fine, what with Eph’s new found sticking it to the head-in-the-sand powers that be).

Why he is watching rats scurry out of the sewers of New York, a sure sign that this great hulking urban landscape of a ship is not that far off sinking into the apocalyptic abyss.

And yet all these character’s stories, and those of the survivors such as CDC administrator Jim Kent (Sean Astin), “survivors” such as venomous lawyer Joan Luss (Leslie Hope) whose scenes with her children, who were whisked away to safety by an observant nanny, were chilling in the extreme (proof that The Strain hasn’t abandoned implied threat completely as a plot device) and  Goth rocker Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy) who devoured not one but two callers seem adrift somewhat, sapping the overall narrative arc of its vigour.

Even the pasty peril presented by one time Nazi commandant Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), and naive fountain of youth questing billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) whose quest to stave off death looks set to doom the human race as a whole, didn’t add much to the simmering tension that should be evident in a show like this in spades.

 

Eph tries one last time, with video evidence of Ansel in the full throes of a stinger-flinging feeding frenzy no less, to convince his boss Dr. Everett Barnes (Daniel Kash) that the threat is real; it doesn't work and Eph is forced to flee, one of the runaways fighting this scourge from the sidelines (Image via We Got This Covered (c) FX)
Eph tries one last time, with video evidence of Ansel in the full throes of a stinger-flinging feeding frenzy no less, to convince his boss Dr. Everett Barnes (Daniel Kash) that the threat is real; it doesn’t work and Eph is forced to flee, one of the runaways fighting this scourge from the sidelines (Image via We Got This Covered (c) FX)

 

Even so there are enough moments of storytelling brilliance to keep watching The Strain, regardless of any weaknesses in the show as a whole.

For one thing, the sensitively-handled evocation of the horrors of the Holocaust, and in particular one camp presided over by Eichorst in which a young Setrakian (played by Jim Watson) first glimpses the Master at work, feeding off a prisoner here, a prisoner there in the dead of night, was worth the price of admission alone.

Delivered as part of Setrakian’s backstory – he is easily the most compelling of the characters in the show, singularly-focused but not inhumanly so; he has simply seen this kind of evil before and knows what must be done to stop it – it effectively gives us a sense of the milieu in which the Master operates, that is places of abject misery, and sadness, which gives you some idea of the show’s sense of what really lies beneath the glitz and glamour of New York City.

And Nora’s moments with her mother, and Augustin “Gus” Elizalde (Miguel Gomez)’s times with his (Adriana Barraza) fleshed out these characters a little more and gave us some reason to care about what happens to them.

The scenes too with Joan Luss, lustfully eyeing her son’s neck, and sniffing her son and daughter greedily as the nanny, sensing that her employer was not the woman who employed her anymore, hustled to get the kids as far away from her as possible, were as unsettling and tautly handled as you could ask for.

That is why, despite the un-entwined character stories, the copious use of gross all-too-obvious horror – which comes with declining returns of fright the more you use them – and the palpable lack of a skin-crawling city-destroying threat (which doesn’t rear its, um, stinger, till the closing scene in the nursing home, the only instance of the show playing its cards too close to its chest), I will keep watching The Strain.

Quite whether I will stick around for the just approved second season is another matter entirely – that will all depend on whether The Strain realises it needs to make me care about what is happening every bit as much as seems to want to scare the ever-lovin bejesus out of me on a regular heart-stopping basis.

Not scared enough yet? Here’s the promo for the next episode “Occultation” …

 

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