Review: The Strain 1×1 (FX/Watch)

Strain your credulity

FX's The Strain

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, FX
In the UK: Acquired by Watch to air this autumn

Vampires are one of the enduring horror icons of the past two centuries. Based originally in folktales, they first truly rose to prominence thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, initially playing on the dual horrors of death and sex, they’ve gone on to be metaphors for pretty much everything from women’s sexual liberation to drug addiction.

Along the way, though, they’ve lost a lot of their potency, in part because of the general decline in Christianity but also because of the even greater decline in belief in scary beast monsters that skulk in the dark. More sophisticated demands from audience in terms of characterisation and the acknowledgement that stereotyping is generally a Bad Thing have meant that the question of whether a race of creatures, even non-human ones, can be all bad has also added to people’s reluctance to take vampires en masse as scary evil bastards.

Indeed, it would be relatively easy to list at least some of the media that have ‘defanged’ vampires and made them almost objects of ridicule: The Twilight Saga, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Blade, True Blood, Being Human (US), Being Human (UK), Dracula, From Dusk Till Dawn, 666 Park Avenue, The Gates, The Vampire Diaries, Moonlight, Penny Dreadful… As you can see, the list does indeed go on and on and on and on – poor old vampires. Makes you almost feel sorry for them.

So you have to at least admire shows that try to make vampires scary again. The much revered and generally wonderful Channel 4 mini-series Ultraviolet is perhaps the best example of how to do this properly, treating them completely seriously, adding science to the mix, giving us all that nuance about whether vampires are truly evil or not, and then basically saying, “Yes, they are and they want to kill us all and stick us in battery farms after creating a nuclear winter to block out the sun.”

Guillermo del Toro’s calling card to the world, Cronos, was also another sterling attempt to make vampires scary, giving us a vampirism passed on by a piece of beetle jewellery, although the film suffered more than a little from del Toro’s love of grand guignol.

Now, del Toro is having another go at making vampires scary with The Strain, an adaptation of his own books in conjunction with Lost/Bates Motels exec producer Carlton Cuse. This essentially takes that original story of Dracula and asks the question: “What would happen if Dracula hadn’t turned up in the 19th century at a boat in Whitby but instead arrived on a 747 in 21st century New York? He’s super fast, super strong and kills in horrible nasty ways, before bringing others back to life as vampires, too. How would the authorities react? What would science make of him?”

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, taking a leaf from his own book, del Toro’s also asked, “What if Dracula’s vampirism was actually caused by an infestation of worms? And there were actually a lot of evil vampires, all intent on taking over the world in a secret gothic conspiracy where they all dress in black?”

Equally unfortunately, the result is something not so much scary as a bit unpleasant yet laughably bad.

Here’s a trailer.

Based on the best-selling vampire novel trilogy from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain is a one-hour high-concept thriller that tells the story of Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll, House of Cards), the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Goodweather, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers wage war for the fate of humanity itself. Del Toro and Hogan will co-write the pilot script, and del Toro will also serve as director. FX Productions will produce the series alongside award-winning writer and producer Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) as executive producer.

Is it any good?
Even though del Toro himself directed the first episode and there’s at least a few decent cast members, this is a dreadful show. Just dreadful. It’s not even so bad it’s good. It’s just bad.

The trouble is you essentially have a botched juxtaposition between all the old school, gothic vampire iconography that worked well 100 years ago and the scientific investigation. And the worms.

Infection, viruses and general body horror are excellent ways to repel an audience and del Toro is good at using them. Unfortunately, stick a bunch of sickly looking vampires with silly accents, big conspiracies, ornate coffins that must be rescued at all costs, eyelids that blink the wrong way and blood-sucking tentacles against that backdrop and suddenly it all looks very, very daft.

It doesn’t help that everything else about the show is derivative and cliched. The lead investigator, Corey Stoll (you know, the druggie politician from House of Cards), is getting divorced, because although he’s great at his work, he’s bad at being a husband and a father. Novel, hey?

Then there’s an old European jewish Holocaust survivor (David Bradley from Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and An Adventure in Space and Time) who knows the truth about vampires and has been fighting them all his life. There’s a Latino gangbanger who loves his mum and who’s helping the vampires – but probably not for long. There’s an attractive helper medic (Mia Maestro from Alias) at the CDC for Stoll to have a potential love affair with, but who doesn’t do a whole lot apart from take her clothes off and do stupid things that’ll put her in danger. There’s a goth satanist rock star who maybe doesn’t believe everything he’s supposed to. And so on.

It’s like del Toro is so keen on bringing the old into our times that he hasn’t noticed that a lot of it doesn’t work any more, because it’s been done to death so many times before. It’s certainly horrifying to have to sit through yet another divorce negotiation where the evil wife’s accusation that the saintly husband doesn’t care about anything except his work is proved by the fact he just won’t turn his phone off and gets lots of very important calls during the meeting. But that’s the wrong kind of horror. It’s the kind that makes you want to watch something better.

It certainly doesn’t help that everyone involved is colossally stupid and can’t do their jobs properly. Or that the science is largely laughable. Or that del Toro includes a lot of his other Cronos tropes.

If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that I know that the books head off in a slightly different direction and become more like The Walking Dead. So zombies, basically. But somehow I doubt it’ll be handled any better.

Overall, despite at least some visual touches by del Toro that look good, some that verge on the mildly chilling and the general unpleasant, body horror worminess of the whole thing, this is a B-movie piece of schlock that wants to have its cake and eat it: it wants to do gothic, old-school vampires while trying to be new and modern. But this particular cake went stale years ago.

PS Incidentally, I think it’s notable that there’s such attention to detail in FX’s press release that they’ve got the name of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrong.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.