Vampires are cool. Everyone knows that, which is why we all love to watch TV shows about them. But with HBO’s True Blood finally bowing out after eight seasons of fluctuating quality last week, viewers could be forgiven for wondering where their next fix of blood-sucking action would come from. Luckily, that particular fang-shaped hole in our schedules has been quickly plugged with The Strain, a 13-part vampire horror series from Guillermo del Toro that began on Watch last night.
From the outset it is clear that this is a visceral supernatural thriller dressed up as an outbreak procedural. With a rare solar eclipse looming, a transatlantic flight lands at JFK airport and sits coldly on the tarmac without response. There are no visible signs of life on board and closer inspection reveals that nearly all of its passengers and crew are apparently dead. Only four people have survived, but even they have no idea how any of this happened.
Expecting the worst, the Centre for Disease Control immediately deploys its finest epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), one of those flawed TV-sleuths who is somehow brilliant at his job despite his personal life being a complete mess. Along with the rest of his “canary team”, Goodweather has to try to find the root of the mystery, but simply can’t piece events together fast enough to prevent a vampire plague from sweeping across New York City.
With the recent Ebola outbreak still fresh in viewers’ minds, re-vamping (pun intended) the origins of vampirism as a global epidemic spread by translucent, thread-like maggots feels like a frighteningly real prospect. The placement of a ticking clock on the investigation injects the story with a sinuous urgency that is positively thrilling for the first 15 minutes or so.
However, a lot of this terror is firmly squelched by the revelation that the contagion has in fact been orchestrated by The Master, a cloaked, slithery parasite who has designs on forming his own vampire race with the help of an ailing billionaire and an icily scrupulous associate.
It feels like del Toro isn’t entirely certain about what kind of story he is trying to tell as he struggles to find a happy balance between the po-faced nature of a procedural and a desire to produce a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the pulpy horror stories of his childhood.
The overall effect is therefore disjointed and unappealing as the tone and pace of the script veer wildly between the taut energy of Goodweather’s investigation and slow-burning reveal of The Master’s Machiavellian scheme.
And that’s a shame because there’s also a lot to enjoy about The Strain, a show that is at its best when combining freaky gore and morbid humour. This is especially true whenever David Bradley is on screen as Abraham Setrakian, an abrasive holocaust survivor who has an elaborately decorated sword concealed inside his cane.
In one scene, shortly after despatching two unfortunate hoodlums with a well-placed knife, we follow Abraham down to his basement to find the still-beating heart he keeps in a jar as a pet and feeds with drops of blood. It’s a weird, unnerving scene that feels strangely affectionate and shows del Toro’s knack for blending horror and beauty with devastating results.
You can also see the director’s sticky-fingers all over the frightening design of the vampires, who feel more feral and animalistic than we’ve seen elsewhere. Far from the pasty abs-models of Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, the monsters here are just that: slimy beasts who feed through a mucus-covered pincer that snaps out from their decaying faces. They’re disgusting, which is exactly how they should be.
Not content with replacing True Blood, it seems that del Toro also has his mind set on emulating the success of The Walking Dead, amassing an endless stream of nasty body shocks and gruesome murders. But if it is to match that level of achievement The Strain needs to decide what it is – a bleakly tense procedural or a knockabout throwback to classic horror – because right now that is the only thing holding it back.
Click here to watch a trailer for The Strain