“Love, you see, is the one force that cannot be explained, cannot be broken down into a chemical process. It is the beacon that guides us back home when no one is there, an the light that illuminates our loss. Its absence robs us of all pleasure, of our capacity for joy. It makes our nights darker and our days gloomier. But when we find love, no matter how wrong, how sad, or how terrible, we cling to it. it gives us our strength. It holds us upright. It feeds on us and we feed on it. Love is our grace. Love is our downfall.”
In the seemingly endless battle between shows for the fictional award for “most horrifying”, The Strain has one big thing going for it – vampiric worms. And lots of them. Crawling under the skin, in eyeballs (!), turning people into monsters. The vampires of The Strain are not of your garden variety undead – these diseased humans are transformed and inhabited by the worm like creatures, using the body as a host to feed and spread their plague.
When an airplane stops dead on a runway in New York, Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) of the Centre for Disease Control are sent in to investigate, and what they find is a plane full of lifeless, mysteriously deceased passengers.
A small number of people live however, with no recollection of the events that halted the plane and killed their fellow passengers. Despite Eph and Nora’s warnings, the survivors return to their families. Soon they begin to shed their hair, fall ill, and as shown in one particularly odd scene, lose their reproductive organs, as the infection within them takes over their body, moulding the host to its needs.
Based on the books of the same name written by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), the latter took up directorial duties for the pilot episode. del Toro also had a strong hand in the design of the vampires. This certainly shows in the meticulous detail of the monster’s anatomy. The science behind the vampiric plague is explained in gory detail, with the worms producing a stinger which protracts from their host’s mouth to transfer to their next victim.
The human side that remains leads the turning host of a body to their loved ones, spreading the disease to them, who in turn spread the disease to their loved ones. And therein lies one of the main themes of The Strain – Love. The show represents a multitude of different facets of love. A love between a son and a father, a husband and wife, a love with life itself. Though the vampiric antagonists of the show hold no love for one another, they use love as a tool to spread their plague, utilising this human nature and “weakness” to aid their cause.
As Eph and Nora look to stop the spread of the disease they meet a large cast of characters, including the reliably brilliant David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor who has been hunting down The Master of the vampires for decades. The vampires he calls Strigoi have been haunting him since his youth, with The Master thriving off the victims of the Holocaust. It was during this period that he met The Master’s right hand man, the cold, calculated Nazi, Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), who alongside Setrakian is one of the shows most intriguing characters, and revels in his chilling role.
Also excellent is rat catcher Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), who joins forces with Eph, Nora, and Setrakian as one of the lead protagonists. With each scene he graces, he fills the screen with charm, swagger and confidence, and brings some of The Strain’s lightest moments also. His scenes are at times a breath of fresh air amongst all of the doom and gloom.
At the other end of the scale, Stoll and Martinez’s Eph and Nora are not as immediately likeable, painted with more broad strokes of the brush. Both are however perfectly amiable, and Stoll in particular rises above his clunky “absent father with a penchant for alcohol” shackles as the season progresses.
This clunky storytelling permeates through the majority of the show throughout its first season, with some uneven pacing, and some heavy-handed acting from the supporting cast, which makes it difficult to fully invest in the world. The special effects and makeup however remain thoroughly impressive throughout.
Flashbacks to Setrakian’s youth provide the highlight of the season, as his interactions with Eichhorst add depth to both character’s motivations, and underline his desire to seek revenge on The Master, who pulls the strings that are shaping Setrakian’s life.
For the first half of the season The Master of the Strigoi is veiled in shadow, with sound effects combining with his cloaked figure to create a fearsome omen. Once revealed in full, the results are mixed unfortunately, as the air of mystery is replaced with a slit mouthed, semi-scary monster, who though eery can’t quite match the images that the mind can conjure.
The finale is predominantly set up for next year’s run, and is therefore slightly anticlimactic. However, there is much to like about The Strain despite its misgivings. Whilst it ultimately it doesn’t rise above its B-Movie trappings, it certainly is a lot of fun when focussing on its greatest strength, which is the unique take on the vampires.
Imperfect, yes, but certainly entertaining. The finale doesn’t quite live up to the build up, but leaves plenty to look forward to for season two. The lasting legacy of The Strain’s first year will be del Toro’s Strigoi, which are in equal parts impressive and horrifying.
Rating (out of 5):