The loathsome vampire morphology that horror auteur Guillermo del Toro has dreamed up for his breakneck television series “The Strain” (FX), based on a series of novels he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan, is not something that could be tweaked to create a swoony YA romance. More like the invasive predators in “Alien,” these vampires seem to be modeled on some actual horrors of nature, such as the parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which invades and takes control of the bodies of ants, transforming their innards into new spores. “The Strain” is not in any way a tale of the supernatural. It is a science fiction story about encounters with a new parasitic species.
Some condescending early reviews have used the code word “pulp” to suggest that while “The Strain” may be good fun it has nothing on its tiny mind except making us jump and shudder. A couple of writers have swooned, quite rightly, over pilot director del Toro’s color drenched and color-coded images. But they are not decorative. Their heightened vividness suggests that a different range of perception applies when we venture out of the human world into the vamp dimension. (Del Toro talks about decoding his color scheme and other matters in this excellent interview.) But the terrors evoked by “The Strain” seem more profound than those of most horror films, the cold touch of the fundamental amorality of natural processes.
Presenting vampirism as an illness, spreading at top speed like the pandemics in recent zombie stories, is not a fresh idea. It was one of the first variations cooked up by writers hoping to modernize what was originally a moralistic sub-genre of the 19th-century gothic novel. Richard Matheson’s classic SF noir novella “I Am Legend” (1954) is probably the most famous of these revisionist accounts, giving rise to three official film adaptations, “The Last Man of Earth” (1964), “The Omega Man” (1971) and the eponymous Will Smith vehicle of 2007. David Cronenberg’s “Rabid” (1977) stood apart in presenting vampirism as a venereal disease. The gorgeousness of del Toro’s images in “The Strain” suggests that he, like Cronenberg, finds these purely biological and heartless processes both terrifying and beautiful.
“The Strain” is strongest when it is most ruthless, weakest when it appears to backtrack on its most transgressive impulses. The normality of the human lives of the characters is insisted upon a bit desperately, as if without this the filmmakers might be accused of nihilism. The clearest example is a woefully limp subplot in which our swashbuckling CDC hero, played with effortless charisma by “House of Cards” breakout performer Corey Stoll, tries to win back custody of his estranged son. How banal is it? Seems he was always running off to prevent a pandemic and, as a result, was “never there for us.” In the pilot he never says, “You knew I was a forensic epidemiologist when you married me,” but perhaps he’ll get around to it in a later episode.