tv review

The Strain, Guillermo del Toro’s New Vampire TV Show, Is Perfect Summer Schlock

THE STRAIN -- Pictured: (L-R) Sean Astin as Jim Kent, Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez, Cory Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather. CR. Michael Gibson/FX
THE STRAIN – Pictured: (L-R) Sean Astin as Jim Kent, Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez, Cory Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather. CR. Michael Gibson/FX Photo: FX

During high school and college I used to go to a decrepit mall on the other side of town. Most of the spaces that normally would have held stores had been empty for years, but the pedestrian areas were open and filled with flea markettype stalls where people sold homemade and used goods. People brought dogs and cats into the mall. On weekends you could sometimes buy freshly laid eggs and homemade tamales and churros there. You’d see people having tailgate parties in the parking lot. The only “respectable” business holdout was the movie theater, which showed films for a dollar. My friends and I used to go there on Friday or Saturday nights to catch the midnight shows, which were raucous affairs. Cigarettes and joints were smoked. People talked back to the screen. Beer was openly consumed. It was a rare screening that didn’t include the sound of bottles accidentally being dropped on the concrete floor and rolling slowly toward the front of the bowling alleysized “auditorium.”

Most of the movies that played at this mall were stupid and trashy and terribly made. But once in a while you’d get a film that was stupid and trashy but well-made — something that had personality and a sense of fun, like The Hidden or The Kiss or Child’s Play 2 or The Serpent and the Rainbow or The Crush or John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Then again, maybe they weren’t all that well-made; maybe they were just not totally terrible and they seemed good because we were drunk or high. I can’t say for sure; mists of time, etc. Once in a very great while you’d see an objectively awesome work of pure bloody gold there, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator or From Beyond, and it was a day-improving surprise, like finding a five dollar bill on the sidewalk. But you didn’t necessarily expect those kinds of tiny miracles. The movie was just part of the experience. As long as it wasn’t dull, you liked it.

Anyway: This biographical warm-up is context for me to tell you precisely what you’re getting getting into when you watch FX’s science-fiction vampire horror miniseries The Strain. It’s a TV show, not a movie, but it if were a movie, it would have played at that theater. I could kind of smell churros as I watched it. Quality-wise, it’s closer to Child’s Play 2 or The Kiss than it is to Re-Animator — which truly is awesome, as anyone who’s seen it will testify — but I love the fact that The Strain seems to be trying to evoke these sorts of better-than-government-work horror midnight time-wasters. At one point it even quotes from Re-Animator, in a morgue scene in which shambling supernatural creatures ambush a lone coroner while Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” plays on a transistor radio. I had a great time watching the first four episodes, mainly because I watched them with my teenage daughter, who’s a wiseass, and because Guillermo del Toro, who co-executive produced the series and directed the pilot from a trilogy of schlocky bestsellers he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan, seems to be enjoying himself immensely as he sets up one creepy and/or horrifying set-piece after another, even when the plot doesn’t necessarily require one at that particular juncture.

The program is dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, and derivative as hell, and the characters behave in ways that make no sense. One second the Center for Disease Control investigators played by Corey Stoll and Mia Maestro act all haughty about the proper protocol for investigating a possible scene of biological or viral infection — a jumbo jetliner that has landed at JFK airport with the passengers and crew comatose with little puncture wounds in their necks; gawrsh, I wonder what caused those? — and a couple of scenes later they come across a huge black coffin inscribed with Satanic-looking runes, and they just open it up to see what’s in it, and they aren’t even wearing hazmat suits. (“Because what could go wrong?” my daughter said. “It’s clearly just the sleeping quarters of a hellbeast.”) They keep doing this all the way through the series. They make Scully and Mulder from The X-Files seem like models of caution. I have mentioned elsewhere that Corey Stoll’s hairpiece is Shatner-level awful and that I hope it factors into the plot. Perhaps it will foreshadow traumatic hair loss that will restore the actor’s bald-domed glory. Or maybe it will set up a shocking midpoint revelation that the toupee is itself a vampire hunter, a thousand-year-old hairpiece that taught the show’s unofficial Van Helsing manqué, a sword-canetoting Holocaust survivor named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), everything he knows. Perhaps the toupee will speak with the voice of Alec Baldwin.

I digress yet again. I’ll close with a list of things I liked about The Strain: the evil one-percenters who are secretly masterminding the slowly spreading vampire infestation; the way that the show’s troublemaking-henchman-in-chief, Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), sits at a makeup mirror and affixes false skin and a false nose to his time-rotted true face, like a vampiric Blanche DuBois preparing to greet a gentleman caller; the genuinely unnerving relationship between a father and a daughter who was on that flight and really should be dead but isn’t, exactly; the way that ace exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand, who’s fast becoming one of my favorite “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors) struts around scenes of vermin infestation like the Steven Seagal of rat-catching. Most of all I liked watching it on a muggy summer night with somebody who didn’t take it especially seriously either, but was willing to admit that at certain points it was, in fact, quite scary, so much that you should probably not start watching an episode too late. Lots of delis are open after midnight, but not enough of them sell garlic.

TV Review: Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain