'The Strain' Pilot Review: Classic Campy Horror
The Strain is a strange little beast, as evidenced by the show’s pilot, “Night Zero.” It’s certainly made with love and visual artistry, as anything by Guillermo del Toro generally is. Del Toro’s love for all the horror genre’s promising adventures in unreality and fear, and even for the flaws that cheapen it to something more akin to parody, is on display in The Strain. There’s schlock here too, a familiarity with ancient horror clichés that ends up damaging the taut nature and stark imagery that gives The Strain purpose.
The vampires as conceived here, are demonic parasites, and exist as part of the general pushback of horror writers against the Twilight Saga and The Vampire Diaries and all the teen soaps that cast vamps as tragic sex symbols. Their methods here are much more disgusting, as are their faces and bodies. When the creature attacks, he’s like the face-hugger from Alien; after there’s nothing left but a husk, he beats his victim’s skull into mush – simply for the sake of it.
With our post-9/11 fears of bioterror and outbreaks, del Toro and Chuck Hogan create eerie tableaus of infected corpses on planes through pale light, barely cracking the darkness. The paranoia of the CDC scientists is palpable — they rattle off enough real world context/events and passable pseudo-medical explanations with such zeal that it lends credence to the proceedings, rather than come off as condescending. A hapless lone medical examiner falls victim to not only the parasitic worms, but also the proto-Atavistic vampires in a grotesque and scary scene that could have been truly memorably chilling, had it not been for “Sweet Caroline” playing all tongue and cheek over the sounds of his screams. You see, that’s the other part of The Strain’s love letter — campy, ridiculous behavior.
The characters don’t fair much better. Corey Stoll wears the worst wig in human history and chews the scenery like a cheat day in his diet. Everyone explains exactly who they are and reveal their deepest motivations feelings in the most expository and awkward way possible. The dialogue is placeholder at best, and the plotting is grievously obvious. Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) is a (admittedly cool) former college professor and current pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem with intimate knowledge of what’s going on. He has a sword/cane with an impossible hilt that renders it virtually unusable, but it’s cool so we’re supposed to forgive it. A drunk grabs his arm and looks at his tattoo and asks him dumb questions about it because we need to establish he’s also a Holocaust survivor. The lack of subtle grace and questionable execution of character and facts are as much associated with the horror genre as the fear, blood and gore. Maybe this is all in here on purpose to pay homage to everything that makes the horror genre as iconic as it is. Unfortunately, by blending everything in without giving much thought to context, the camp often belies the scary nature of the plot. The question becomes — are del Toro and Hogan undermining themselves on purpose because that’s what so many horror films do by accident? The answer is murky, and the lack of clear intent makes The Strain difficult to review.
Some have already pushed back on The Strain and FX for being so familiar. Many were expecting something like The Shield, Louie or The Americans — something that takes a done-to-death concept and turns it on its head. I, as much as anyone else, wanted this to do something borderline impossible — reinvigorate and redefine horror on TV and film for an entirely new generation. When the hopes are that high, one shouldn’t be surprised when the reality of it falls short.
Somebody once said that all creative art — movies, books, television, music, etc. — needs to do at least one of three things: entertain, inform or inspire. The Strain certainly does entertain as a horror show: we love the cheesiness of the dialogue, the thrill of the blood, the hysterical acting, the sense of dread, the bad jokes. It is a letdown that the show doesn’t live up to expectations, but it’s not actually the creator’s fault here. Even without the context of what the series is meant to be, “Night Zero” was a pleasurable experience that offered enough mystery and enough in the way of scares and blood to warrant returning for episode two. When placed into context, knowing that it’s going to be hokey yet scary, you know what you’re in for, which is also a reason to return for the next episode. It’s hokey and scary! What’s not to love?
The Strain airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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