While the tv-is-superior-to-film debate will surely rumble on (Why? Can’t we just enjoy both?), in terms of horror there’s only one winner: small-screen viewers are simply much better served than multiplex audiences. There’s incomparable zombie drama The Walking Dead, the supremely eerie Penny Dreadful, gastro-gore feast Hannibal, and, above all others, there’s Ryan Murphy’s camp anthology American Horror Story, which is somehow in its fourth season despite constantly regurgitating the same plot and characters with diminishing returns.
But one show that seems to have slipped under the radar is Guillermo del Toro’s vampire-contagion thriller The Strain, which is preposterous considering it’s one of the most inventive and enjoyable shows around, offering a dizzying blend of horror tropes and putting a modern twist on the vampire genre by reinventing the fanged-monsters as blood-thirsty parasites rapidly infecting New York City. It will take a lot more than a Bob Geldof whip-round to beat this epidemic.
Though the first couple of episodes were a soporific jumble of medical-procedural and dull character exposition, with the show approaching its first season finale the style and tone has clearly evolved into something altogether more satisfying – a pulpy vampire-invasion story. We’re now firmly in comic book territory with epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) banding together with a miss-matched team of colourful outcasts to destroy the Master – a formidable whirlwind of ancient cloaks and claws leading the invasion – which leads to any number of visceral, gory showdowns in a pitch-perfect blend of classic horror, black humour and genuine tension.
The action flows in a furious explosion of supernatural thrills and B-movie viscera, managing to stay tense and interesting throughout by cutting between three plot strands. In between Eph and his rag-tag team of vampire hunters tracking the Master through New York City’s sewers, we follow the story of Gus (Miguel Gomez), a recently released ex-con who tries to provide for his trusting mother and loser brother while avoiding the temptation to slip back into old habits. Meanwhile, the Master’s half-human underling Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) meticulously lays the foundations for his boss’s grand plan. It’s totally gripping stuff and it doesn’t let up for a single second.
It’s handy, then, that The Strain can call upon some supreme acting talent and pin-point characterization to give the dark plot its weight. As a typical workaholic who just needs to learn to put his family first, Eph could be a frustratingly familiar character, but Stoll overcomes an unfortunately distracting wig to make him a rootable hero whose dedication makes him one of the few willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the vampires. Equally impressive is David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian, a curmudgeonly holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to hunting the Master and in the process lost everyone he loves.
The show is also not short of colourful villains – Jonathan Hyde’s terminally ill business tycoon is one of the most hissable characters on TV. And Sammel’s performance as Eichhorst is ready-made for panto season, cold and unsettlingly composed as he slithers his way through scenes with the dead-eyed certainty of a man who knows he has the power of the devil at his shoulder.
There’s always a chance with a show that packs in so many genre conventions could spin out of control (see the Asylum season of American Horror Story) but The Strain has the advantage of following a course set by the source novels, which del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. With the filmmaker insisting the show will run for no more than five seasons, there should be no opportunity for the show to lose its focus.
The Strain may not be the freakiest horror on show but it’s refreshingly old-school and endlessly imaginative. And I guarantee it’s more fun than whatever the hell is going on in American Horror Story.