This review may contain spoilers.
If “Blade” had a baby with the “The Night Flyer” when watching “Salem’s Lot,” it’d look a whole like FX’s fantastic “The Strain.”
An amazing achievement for television, “The Strain” successfully combines vampire lore from a dozen different sources, all the while putting its own spin on it.
Guillermo del Toro is a very up and down director/producer. While some of his films are decent — “Hell Boy” and “Chronos” coming to mind, most are bad (“Pacific Rim”) to downright awful (“Mama”). He’s always had a fantastic sense of production design, which means his movies tend to look amazing, but there’s usually something more important lacking in his films. Despite having amazingly good taste in films, his own story telling never quite matches his exquisite artwork.
But all that’s in the past now as his pilot episode of “The Strain” successfully does one of the hardest things to do in movie making: making a scary vampire movie. I should know, as I tried to do much the same thing in “Vampireland,” another tale of the world ending via bloodsucking monsters.
But where I had styrofoam headstones and one fog machine, Del Torro brings to bare a Hollywood blockbuster level of production value to the screen. The coffin alone in “The Strain” is worth watching it for — just a stunning bit prop design, a true work of art all by itself. The rest of the production is just as good — excellent cast, great costumes, grim and realistic special effects, fantastic sound and lighting — in every way, a top shelf production.
But unlike his other films, “The Strain” doesn’t let all that technical veracity bog down the story. In fact, it’s amazing how quickly paced the show is, how gritty and realistic (considering the subject matter).
We’re quickly introduced to several characters, and despite the torrid pace and far out plot, it never gets overwhelming. Even better, the tension and fear grows with each passing minute — amazing considering the number characters and pacing. “The Strain” packs all the wallop of both a top notch plague story, combined with the scariest of vampire movies.
As I mentioned, “The Strain” is influenced by lots of good vampire tales. Everything from the original vampire film, “Nosferatu,” and its plague rates, to a vampire using an airplane (“The Night Flyer”), to a rich, powerful organization in league with vampires (“Blade”), “The Strain” incorporates all that is good in vampire lore and it does it well.
Structurally, it’s very similar to Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and that’s a good thing, as both the novel and original CBS mini-series are among the best vampire stories ever told. “The Strain” also bares a bit of resemblance to “The Stand,” and again that’s good.
Beyond the great influences, the show is amazingly topical — illegal immigration, a “dead” plane, the CDC trying to control a plague, corruption — all those thing literally in the news this week. Not since “Battlestar Galactica” has there been a show that so resembles what’s going on in modern life.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Nothing, other than I wanted about 10 more hours it. It really is an accomplishment. It’s almost unbelievable that it’s only a TV show …
5 “stop what you’re doing, pull down the shades, and watch it already” out of 5 stars.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
“The Strain” was written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan based on the novel of the same name. The pilot was directed by del Toro. It stars Corey Stoll, Sean Astin, Mía Maestro, David Bradley, Jonathan Hyde and Richard Sammel.