Guillermo del Toro's vampire series The Strain recently wrapped its first season, and it's pure B-movie material meshed with some truly gross out special effects to deliver a mostly entertaining package overall, worth catching up with in time for Halloween if you can stomach it. Based on the novel trilogy written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and adapted for FX with some help from Lost co-helmer Carlton Cuse, we follow a group of characters in New York City as a mysterious plague begins ravaging the citizens after a plane lands at JFK airport with its entire passenger load and crew having been wiped out by something sticky and seemingly fatal. There are a few survivors, but these people quickly start to show some very graphic and disgusting symptoms of their infection, and rapidly begin morphing into demons who feast on the living and can't go out in the daylight.
Yes, they're vampires, but not just any vamps- these are creations from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, and if you're familiar with the director's work, you're going to recognize a lot of these creature features from his past delvings into the genre, in films 1993's Cronos and 2002's Blade II in particular. We're talking worms in the eyeballs, ejecting tongues that swallow people up, mutated body parts and others that simply fall off (one of the most memorable moments of the season is when one transforming vamp goes to the toilet and we suddenly hear a plop! Yeah, it's what you think it is). The funny part about all this is that the gross stuff, if you can handle it (it'll probably be too much for the squeamish) is really the best part of the show as a whole. For the most part, the effects are well done and realistic (as much as possible anyway), and it leads to some truly and consistently scary moments as the first season progresses.
The rest of the show is standard heroes versus villains plotting, as our rag-tag group of survivors eventually comes together and becomes a vampire-slaying crew, for lack of a better term. With this group of people we've got a lot of standard tropes in our midst- our main character is Ephram Goodweather, doctor from the CDC and played by Corey Stoll (who embodies the right tone, an appropriately lighthearted approach, which is really the only way to go on a show like this), and he brings along his colleague/girlfriend Nora, played by Mia Maestro, formerly of Alias and The Motorcycle Diaries, and coworker Jim (Sean Astin, who you'll probably be able to guess what happens to if you're familiar with his TV filmography-remember him on 24?). Then we've got the old man who's been fighting these things for decades, the Russian pest control operative who's finally got a enemy at his own level, a hacker girl who wants to be reformed, a Hispanic ex-con who's also looking for payback, etc. It may be telling that even as I write this after a thirteen episode season, I can't off the top of my head remember the names of these people, aside from Eph, our protagonist. With shows like this, the character development is usually slight at best, while the real meat of the series lies in the gory face to face battles with the monsters (like The Walking Dead I suppose, although I do think this show is a step above that one in quality).
There is a pretty good villain here, which is the undead vampire Nazi Thomas Eichorst, played by Richard Sammel, who has long history with the old man Setrakian, having once been the commander at the head of the concentration camp where Setrakian was a prisoner in WWII. Unfortunately, the show doesn't seem to realize he is the main villain and instead spends most of the season building up the head vampire The Master (was that name taken from Buffy Season 1?) as the ultimate foe, who when he's finally revealed is immediately hamstrung in impact by a very silly looking mask that I'm sorry to say looks like it could have been bought at the nearest Halloween superstore for $5. I mean, come on, you have all these great special effects employed for the slimy and disgusting vamps all year and this is what The Master has to look like every time we see him? It kind of diminishes the threat a little bit. Frankly, even Buffy's Master was scarier looking.
Another aspect of the show I grew impatient with was the near constant deployment of the "nobody believes me" syndrome in the first 8-10 episodes, where Eph or someone else is running around screaming about the vampire plague, even showing video of infected people transforming, and you got it, no one accepts the truth or believes their own eyes, laughs the person off, and is promptly eaten alive in the next scene or two. Is everyone in New York City a total idiot? Would anyone really act like this if the city's power was shut off, hysteria and looting was rampant, and everywhere you look someone was being attacked by a giant tongue that sucks all your blood in seconds?
I don't mean to sound too harsh though. The Strain is mostly a lot of fun, even with the paper thin characters and the often idiotic things they do. Who am I kidding, this show is about watching people get eaten while others manage to fight them off by head slicing, which is the only real way to take vamps down for good (that or a silver bullet). It never takes itself too seriously either, which makes it easy to forgive things like plot holes and silly Halloween masks on major villains (although it really would be better if The Master was a more formidable looking creature- maybe they can fix that in the hiatus). For a show that fully embraces its B-movie mentality, I think it's only fitting to dish out that entirely proper letter for it.