The best compliment I can give FX’s The Strain? The pilot episode made me want to revisit two beloved ‘80s horror movies, Lucio Fulci’s Italian gorefest The Beyond (1981) and Fred Dekker’s horror-comedy Night of the Creeps (1986).
There’s a scene near the end of The Strain’s first hour (which premieres tomorrow night at 10 p.m. EST) that exemplifies everything this show could be, and finds genre master Guillermo del Toro—who directed the pilot, co-created the series with crime writer Chuck Hogan, and co-wrote the novels it’s based on, also with Hogan—directing his most hardcore horror moment yet. A low-level coroner is working the graveyard shift in a morgue, inspecting a bunch of corpses that’ve come from an airplane that mysteriously landed at NYC’s John F. Kennedy Airport with 206 of its 210 passengers dead, eyes open and drained of all their blood. Strange noises pull him away from the operating table, and when he returns back to his work post, he’s greeted by a small army of the walking dead.
Both The Beyond and Night of the Creeps have sequences that similarly take place in labs housing dead bodies, but The Strain’s scene in question impressively manages to top what Fulci and Dekker pulled off. That's mainly because del Toro’s executed such a gory and nightmarish bit on a TV show, and he’s also added a sick little kink to the slaughter that’s best left unspoiled here.
Having seen The Strain’s first four episodes so far, I’ll say this: Horror fans are going to lose their collective shit over several like-minded sequences. Abandoning the sexiness of HBO’s True Blood, del Toro, Hogan, and executive producer Carlton Cuse (of Lost and Bates Motel fame) are bringing scariness back to small-screen vampires with this show. Far from the Bela Lugosi-styled bloodsuckers of old, The Strain’s undead are a combination of zombie-like walkers, slithery ghouls taller than Shaq and dressed in cloaks, and Nosferatu-esque baldies who cover themselves in human costumes every morning before heading to work. They also drink blood in a revoltingly fun new way: Large tentacles, or “stingers,” shoot out of their mouths, latch onto the victim’s throat, and Hoover the red liquid out. When The Strain is at its best, del Toro and company offset patiently staged attacks with happy-go-lucky music cues; in the pilot, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” backs the aforementioned morgue highlight, and in a later episode, “Knick Knack, Paddy Whack” reminds viewers that the respective scene’s monster is a once-cute little girl.
It’s that morbid sense of humor and genre showmanship that gives The Strain its B-movie charms; detrimentally, though, del Toro, Hogan, and Cuse have other A-minded things on their agenda. As a character drama, The Strain, well, strains. House of Cards alum Corey Stoll is its leading man, playing CDC team head Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, who, along with his colleagues Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) and Jim Kent (Sean Astin), is called to the airplane site and gets wrapped up in what seems like a biological outbreak but is, yes, a vampire mythology that apparently dates back to the Holocaust. Its Nazi implications are seen through the antagonistic underworld capo Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel) and his decades-long feud with a kooky old pawn shop owner, Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) who keeps an animate, deformed heart in a jar.
The Eichorst/Setrakian conflict? It’s good campy fun, especially once Abraham starts using his cane that doubles as an ancient sword to decapitate unsuspecting ghouls. But that’s The Strain’s B plot, maybe even its C story. The show’s main character narrative revolves around Ephraim and the custody battle with his ex-wife, Kelly (Natalie Brown), over their young son, Zach (Ben Hyland). Played for heart-wrenching sentiment, Ephraim’s domestic troubles drip with distracting sap, with the lame tenderness made even worse by sporadic voiceovers from Abraham talking about how “love is our downfall.” Corey Stoll’s fine in the role, but whenever Ephraim leaves a CDC scene early to see Zach, which seems to be the only way he ever departs from the show’s coolest moments, he and his awful wig deplete The Strain of its enjoyment faster than any monster’s protruding stinger.
He’s not The Strain’s only living, breathing distraction. In an effort to expand the story’s scope throughout New York, there are more characters than del Toro, Hogan, and Cuse know what to do with, and a few of them are laughably conceived. There’s a Latino gangbanger (Miguel Gomez) reluctantly working for the bad guys and who’s prone to calling Caucasians “white boys” because that’s what white writers always have Latin tough guy characters do; one of the plane’s four survivors is a silly Goth rock star named Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy) who even Marilyn Manson would think is overdrawn. Less maddening is hulking Russian exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), a levity supplier who’s investigating a string of rat sightings. He’s entertaining but, at The Strain’s four-episode mark, feels inconsequential and detached.
A 13-episode series, The Strain would’ve perhaps been better served with a smaller order, one hewing closer to the eight-episode duration that benefited Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. The episodes following The Strain’s exceedingly superior pilot, with their inflated subplots, struggle to maintain the first hour’s cohesion and tension. Every time I was ready to write the show off, however, del Toro’s horror sensibilities reappeared and showed me grotesque images I’d never seen before on a television show. In that way, The Strain should more than satisfy horror aficionados who already miss Penny Dreadful, have given up on True Blood, and need a new weekly fix. They’ll be hooked halfway into tomorrow night’s premiere, when a doomed CDC lackey’s skull gets pummeled into crimson oatmeal in The Strain’s first “Holy viscera!” moment of many. They’ll wholeheartedly appreciate seeing Lucio Fulci’s cinematic tastes transmitted into Sunday night primetime television.