“THE STRAIN” (Pilot Review)
Part fantasy, part medical horror and part vampire odyssey, Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s THE STRAIN was always going to be a complicated adaptation. Considering Hogan and del Toro are both executive producers on the series however, there was a confidence from horror fans that the series would at least be faithful to its source material. And it was. Despite inspired visuals, impressive performances and high ambition, THE STRAIN’s faithfulness and tonal inconsistencies may be the biggest obstacle keeping it from being the next truly great horror show.
That’s not to say THE STRAIN lacks in the scare department, as the pilot offers some solid, dread-inspiring moments and flashes of truly unsettling tension. After a 747 filled with dead passengers mysteriously lands, a group of New Yorkers find themselves entangled in a conspiracy to bring back an ancient evil. del Toro injects his recognizably fantastic flair into THE STRAIN in spades, appearing to be visually influenced by Italian horror as well, especially when the vampires emerge looking like Fulci-esque zombies.
But the main issue lies between those points, as del Toro (who directs the pilot, “Night Zero”) feels inclined to keep every moment from his book in tact for its on-screen counterpart even at the cost of pacing and impact. The show is visually breathtaking throughout, but the material there needs trimming to truly maintain an eerie atmosphere. And though each character gets a chance to shine in THE STRAIN’s two-hour premiere, there’s an overall disconnect to the series that keeps the horror from meeting its full potential.
This is also not to say THE STRAIN is bad, as del Toro’s vision still kept this writer excited for where the series may go from its unnerving climax. In fact, del Toro’s hand is very clear on the cinematic pilot, even when the narrative delves into sillier subplots. Cinematographer Checco Varese also deserves championing, considering his sleek and colorful shots add to the creepy fantasy. But what it does mean is that THE STRAIN feels like its source material; obtuse to a fault, emotionally disconnected and entertaining at the cost of wit.
THE STRAIN sports an excellent cast that helps elevate the material into fully engaging territory, however. Corey Stoll comes out of the project like a beast, running head-on into verbose dialogue and intellectualism with a believable matter-of-fact humanity as well as captivating confidence. Likewise, David Bradley runs neck-and-neck with Stoll as the series’ MVP, offering complete conviction in his character matched with a tragically weary physicality. And smaller turns from Jonathan Hyde, Andrew Divoff, Sean Astin and Natalie Brown as also impressive in their own right; in fact, the only weak link comes from Mia Maestro, whose faults come mostly from a criminally underwritten and stereotypical character.
Luckily, THE STRAIN has the freedom on late night cable to deliver the edgier, mature story it deserves, proven shockingly so during one exceptionally brutal evisceration. With this and the talent associated, THE STRAIN will hopefully grow and offer a gorgeous alternative for vampire fans on television. From the pilot alone, caution is not only expected but understandable, but as long as the series doesn’t become comfortable in its ways, THE STRAIN has the possibility to be fun, summer scare fare; it’s just not quite there yet.