We are in the midst of a TV horror renaissance, and it’s being led by a show about undead hordes laying waste to human civilization, and motley survivors striving to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their fellow countrymen alive.
It would be no surprise if you assumed I was talking about AMC’s popular The Walking Dead or its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, the latter of which just posted a record-breaking cable-TV debut this past Sunday. But those shows, despite their popularity, are almost as sluggish and monotonous as the rotting, shuffling brain-eaters plaguing mankind. No, I’m referring to a show smart enough to know that gore is supposed to be both gross and goofy, that character development should spring forth from gripping dramatic situations, and that the only thing scarier than a monster is a monstrous SS officer. I’m referring to FX’s vampire-apocalypse saga The Strain, which—now midway through its stellar second season—has become the small screen’s most purely enjoyable pulp entertainment.
Produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and based on his books co-written with Chuck Hogan, The Strain is the sort of show that would be deemed a “guilty pleasure” if one were apt to feel guilty about their pleasures. A genre entertainment equally indebted to horror cinema, comics, Del Toro’s own subterranean-fixated films, and, yes, The Walking Dead, it’s a series that’s less about originality than execution. Fortunately, it executes its material as well as one could possibly hope, striking such a fine atmospheric balance between solemnity and silliness that it manages to be unnerving, exciting and wink-wink amusing at the same time. Think of it as a cross between Christopher Lee’s Hammer horror classics, the early body-horror work of David Cronenberg, and Del Toro’s Blade II, except that here, the villains aren’t just bloodsuckers—they’re bloodsuckers led by a Nazi, an American capitalist, and a heavy metal singer.
That trio’s makeup speaks to the show’s sense of humor, although The Strain doesn’t play its lunacy for laughs; rather, it treats its over-the-top elements with a seriousness that allows it to come off as more than just a long-form joke. Thus, when its hero, CDC big shot Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll), pokes at a vampire’s facial boil with a sword and puss oozes out and down the fiend’s cheek, the moment is directly related to the story at hand, outright nasty, and just gratuitous enough to elicit a chuckle alongside one’s gagging. This is a show where the vampires don’t have old-school fangs but giant phallic snake-like suckers that emerge from their mouth/throat cavities instead, and where Stoll—known for being bald—wears a weird wig for the better part of the show’s first season and a half for no good reason except, presumably, that it’s funny to do so, and adds to the proceedings’ generally off-kilter mood.
Boasting a darkness-illuminated-by-flashlights aesthetic that’s bolstered by its fondness for dank, moldy locales (subways, tunnels, caves, etc.), The Strain concerns Eph’s efforts to combat a dire outbreak of vampirism in Manhattan. That pandemic has been brought about by a towering Dracula-like leader known as the Master, his Third Reich-recruited right-hand man Thomas Eichhorst (a peerlessly creepy Richard Sammel), and crippled U.S. businessman Eldritch Palmer (a superb Jonathan Hyde), who’s spent his life trying to become partners with the Master in order to escape his wheelchair and gain immortality. This cabal is also joined by Bolivar (Jack Kesy), a heavy metal singer who, during this most recent season, became the new vessel for the Master—a fitting twist for a show that often resembles, in look as well as tone, the fire-and-brimstone album covers from Slayer and Cannibal Corpse.
The Strain pulls no punches with its scenario, as New York is almost immediately torn apart by this cataclysm, and after its first few episodes, its characters thankfully stop questioning what exactly is going on. Everyone on this show fully understands that they’re dealing with creatures of the night, even Eph, who despite being a man of science is soon converted into a vampire true-believer by professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), a 94-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor who carries an ornate walking cane that sheaths a silver blade, and whose sole purpose in life has been the destruction of the Master. Setrakian’s history hunting vamps is recounted in regular flashbacks, which cover his time spent with Eichhorst in a concentration camp and his later efforts alongside young Eldritch Palmer to find a mystical book that may hold the key to stopping the vampire plague. He’s also a gruff, surly old bastard with a knack (and subtle fondness) for decapitating the undead.
Beheadings are a big part of The Strain, but so too is human drama, even if it’s usually accompanied by mountains of blood and guts. Eph and Setrakian are joined on their mission by Eph’s colleague/former lover Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), erudite Russian-American exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), beautiful computer hacker Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas), and Eph’s grating son Zach (Max Charles), whose mother—now a vampire mommy to a brood of skittering, wall-crawling “spider kids”—wants to reclaim him for the Master. They’re like a grungier A-Team, replete with alcoholism addictions, parental hang-ups and romantic tensions complicating their various tasks at hand. And unlike The Walking Dead, The Strain doesn’t halt its supernatural insanity for inert character-centric episodes; it develops its protagonists’ interpersonal issues at the same time that it has them exterminate enemies with daggers, guns, and silver-spraying grenades, thereby making sure momentum is always at a fever pitch.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s a subplot involving a fearless Latino ex-con named Gus (Miguel Gomez), who unwittingly transported the Master to the Big Apple and is now working on the side of good alongside an old luchadora (i.e. masked Mexican wrestler) who once starred in B-grade horror movies. And there’s also a race of God-like “Ancients” who want to stop the Master, a disobedient former member of their clan who apparently struck out on his own in order to achieve world domination. And then there’s the centuries-old Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones), a half-human, half-vampire assassin who, introduced in the show’s most recent episodes, wields a bone-handled sword and has been kicking ass since before the days of Rome’s gladiator pits.
Gleefully blending reality and mythology, segueing between glittering towers of power and the damp underworld where vermin nest, and indulging in splatter-rific bedlam while simultaneously addressing its heroes’ infidelities, fears, weaknesses and selflessness—all of it led by Stoll, the commanding, charismatic center of gravity around which such chaos swirls—The Strain is a show that never opts for less when more is possible. And as it barrels full-speed toward its second season’s October finale, it continues to prove that more—more lore, more amour, and much more gore—is possible almost all of the time.