The Ninjabot

Vampires Never Looked This Good – THE STRAIN Premiere Review

Posted on July 14, 2014 at 10:29 am by Amanda Andonian

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Imagine a world where vampires are real; then imagine that they’re not sparkly-faced emo teens, but terrifying monsters that suck your blood through a tentacle that shoots out of their mouths. That’s The Strain in a nutshell. Based on the novels of the same name, The Strain is director Guillermo Del Toro’s take on the classic horror monster—the vampire.

Set in New York City, the story primarily follows CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll, probably best known for House of Cards and Midnight in Paris). He’s passionate, arrogant, and the best at what he does; but of course his job has driven a wedge between him and his wife, who’s taking him to divorce court. Good thing she never knew about his affair with colleague Nora Martinez (played by Mia Maestro of The Motorcycle Diaries)! The two are also joined by the somewhat bumbling Jim Kent (Sean Astin) as they attempt to uncover the mystery of the “dead plane,” which landed in New York from Berlin, completely shutting down and going dark within minutes.

This plan sets off a chain of events that have apparently been set in place by a wealthy businessman, Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), and his creepy, undead partner Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel). As the story unfolds, we learn that their plan was to ship a giant box from Berlin to the States, thereby unleashing an ancient force that was probably better left buried. The viewing audience, of course, will catch on to all the little “clues” and figure out early on that the box is a coffin, and it held a bone fide vampire who’s ready to unleash terror and destruction upon New York. Fun times!

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My first impression of the premiere was that they must have lifted all the dialog verbatim from the book without bothering to edit or update the tone. Given the fact that The Strain presents us with an extremely grim, dark setting, the dialog between characters does little to reflect that ambiance. It boomerangs between outright silly (“[The plane’s] bigger in person than on the screen. They’re like houses with wings.”) to ridiculously melodramatic (“You don’t like terrorists? Try negotiating with a virus.”) from minute to minute, and I found myself wishing that the characters would stop talking so that I could enjoy what was happening on screen. Everyone is a caricature of what the show seems to think a leading man, sidekick, street thug, crazy-old-guy-with-lots-of-secret-insight should be. While I do think that providing the audience with those archetypes is important to grounding the story and making it easier to digest, it feels a little shoehorned in when your main character’s primary idiosyncrasy is that he really likes his milk.

The one exception is Abraham Setrakian, played David Bradley, who’s probably best known as Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies. Setrakian is set up early on as the key to understanding what happened on the plane, but of course no one will listen to him because he’s a crazy old guy who walks around with a sword concealed in his cane. Pretty bad ass if you ask me! While he does have moments of equally silly melodrama, Bradley brings enough subtlety to the role that Setrakian doesn’t come off quite as over-the-top as the other main characters. Moreover, his character is the one that the audience most needs to trust and believe in because he holds potential salvation for everyone else. We’re supposed to sympathize with him because we know he’s right, and that Ephraim will be proven wrong. And boy is he proven wrong.

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The Strain shines best when it’s lingering on the slow reveal of something potentially horrifying. Ephraim and Nora’s tour through the dead plane is full of exquisite tension; and when they discover the splatter of bio-matter under UV light, I felt the same baffled excitement they did. A ticking clock in the corner of the screen counts up to who-knows-what, and each passing minute in the airport leads us closer to the answers that Ephraim seeks. Although the show gets off to a clunky start while introducing the major players, it quickly gets to the business of frightening and surprising us with quiet, suspenseful moments jarringly shattered by extreme violence. This is where Del Toro’s talent as a director really comes to the fore, and it was those moments that I enjoyed the most.

What also stands out about The Strain is the almost gothic atmosphere juxtaposed with modern day life. It’s a world where the sterile white tents of the CDC exist side-by-side with the strange grotesquerie hidden beneath Setrakian’s antique store. It’s at once new and old, and both sides of this world fit together perfectly. From what little I’ve seen of the mythology of this world so far, the setting is fully fleshed out and richly described, which helps further in grounding the reality of the show. If we didn’t have something concrete to hold on to, it would be more difficult to buy into the vampire mythology that the story is introducing.

Despite the heavy-handed characterization of the major players, I thought that The Strain did get off to a relatively strong start. We’re supposed to dislike Ephraim at first blush because he’s arrogant and self-involved, but no doubt he’ll come around quickly once the real danger starts. I imagine that some of the more juvenile dialog is also meant to act as a throw back to cheesy horror (or at least is directly lifted dialog from the books), and I’m hoping that aspect falls by the wayside as the show grows more comfortable with what it is. Thus far, if you’re looking for Sunday night entertainment to fill the void, then The Strain is definitely well worth your time.

“Night Zero” – B+

The Strain, Season 1 Episode 1, “Night Zero,” originally aired July 13th, 2014 on FX.

You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @reiko516 for more geek news.

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