If you were to judge Guillermo del Toro’s first venture into the currently burgeoning world of television, The Strain (based on the 2009 trilogy of horror novels he penned with Chuck Hogan) on its constituent building blocks alone, you could’ve forgiven for wondering how the show has attracted the buzz that it has.
After all, while it has the creative imprimatur of one of the modern masters of horror storytelling most definitely stamped upon it and the involvement of Carlton Cuse of Lost fame, it is also made up of more cliches than you can poke a six foot long vampiric proboscis at.
In short order in the first two episodes (“Night Zero” and “The Box”), we are introduced to the workaholic Centre for Disease Control scientist, Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), a man whose marriage is in ruins and whose custody of his son is slowly slipping from his grasp, largely due to his willingness to put the work to which he is passionately devoted to before pretty much everything else.
He is, of course, a modern (alcoholic) Cassandra, a man who begins to suspect there is more to the mysterious planeload of “dead” passengers newly touched down in New York from Berlin than a simple pathogen but whose concerns are summarily dismissed by his boss Dr. Everett Barnes (Daniel Kash) and the political powers that be who fear a collapse of a $70 billion export economy more than the possibility of a deadly, human-civilisation decimating epidemic.
Naturally Ephraim, whose name is often truncated to “Eph”, affectionately by those close to him, and as a thinly-veiled proto-expletive by those who view his tenacious commitment to uncovering the truth as an infuriating inconvenience, has had an affair with his colleague Dr. Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro) with whom he has an almost telepathic professional relationship, and a tender personal one when no one is looking.
He is prone to being a tad preachy and arrogant, has his assistant Jim Kent (Sean Astin) fetch him coffee, possibly not the best of ideas since his motives may be suspect and he might be, OK most definitely if unwillingly is, in league with the vampiric enemy.
One led, naturally enough, by an overly tall, hooded, fast-moving freak called the Master (Robert Maillet), one of seven Ancient vampires determined to re-make the world in his own twisted image, one that is neatly and starkly divided between horrific hairless vampires, who possess none of the camp charm of their True Blood brethren, and their human hosts/food.
There is dialogue so histrionically-inclined and breathlessly delivered – “This is bad, real bad” , “That line has been crossed” – that you wince and laugh ruefully all at once, people who open doors or venture into dark, deserted places when more sensible mortals would run clear in the other direction, a Latino bad boy with a heart of gold in way over his head (Augustin “Gus” Elizalde played by Miguel Gomez), a Ukrainian rat catcher who seem to relish eradicating vermin of all kinds (Kevin Durand as Vasiliy Fet) and a quirky medical examiner with witty retorts.
Also menacingly along for the end of the world ride is a pasty-thin, creepy ex-Nazi commandant resurrected as the Master’s henchman (Thomas Eichorst played by German actor Richard Sammel), a billionaire (Eldritch Palmer played by Jonathan Hyde) invalid looking for disease-free immortality who is prepared to make a deal with an undead devil to acquire it, and naturally the wise old man and concentration camp survivor Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) who has seen it all before but is sufficiently intense and odd that no one will actually properly listen to him.
The Strain is thus overflowing with cliches in multitudinous abundance and yet it somehow manages to be utterly, compulsively riveting viewing, even for those of us with weak stomachs for horror in any form.
This has an immense deal to do, first and foremost with del Toro’s unequalled knack for creating a palpable sense of chilling atmosphere, the sense that something is building and is about to burst, in this case, literally, into the open with terrifying consequences.
In other words, you cannot look way, no matter how much you way to, so perfectly woven is this sense of menace lurking on the edges, about to ensnare the unwitting which, apart from the Master himself and his henchman, is pretty much everybody.
It’s this carefully calibrated buildup, orchestrated step-by-agonisingingly-scary-step, that defines The Strain, the horror kept within tightly confined and sparingly used parameters, a trend that runs counter to the current willingness to slather blood, gore, and copious body parts across the screen like they’re paint on a messy abstract painter’s demented canvas.
del Toro is a master of the perfectly-timed reveal, the careful pulling back of the curtain, the drip feed of critically-important information to different characters, none of whom holds all of the pieces needed to solve the puzzle, or fully combat the threat.
Thus there is no great reveal of the sinister monster at large, but rather a teaser here, a glimpse there with the true horror left for small, perfectly-executed scenes when they will most effective, usually at the end of the episode, leaving you with mouth gaping open in true shock, a rarity in a lot of modern drama where all the clues are laid out, the reveals are telegraphed well in advance and any sense of suspense is foregone in favour of broad, brushstroke storytelling where little is left to the imagination.
It is a master stroke, very much in keeping with del Toro’s past work, keeping you glued to the TV set, waiting for the next inventive way that the master of the modern horror narrative will rearrange the pieces to pleasing, if deeply unsettling, and profoundly scary, effect.
Combine this supremely-unnerving drip, drip, drip storytelling with visuals that suggest apocalypse and the end of all things, even in the midst of neon-lit modern airport like JFK, spooky tautly-delivered music that accents the scene in which it is played without overwhelming it, and personal lives in free fall of one kind or another (mini-apocalypses if you like) and you have a masterfully-told tale that uses the cliches, the all too obvious cliches, in its service in such a way that you are hooked from almost the first frame.
The Strain is by means perfect and could yet sink beneath the weight of its all too obvious well-used tropes, but by and large it magically and scarily (very scarily) transcends them, much as the supremely-confident, coolly-cruel and methodical vampires believe they are will triumph over a blithely unaware and quite possibly damned humanity.