Despite a lacklustre beginning, characterised by a wayward tone and insipid pacing, The Strain, Guillermo Del Toro’s gory vampire yarn based on his own novel, gradually found its bearings during a hugely enjoyable first season.
With the dour contagion theme thankfully ditched in favour of a move towards its schlock horror roots and a core set of intriguing characters now firmly established, the series feels primed and ready to hit the ground running in its sophomore season.
Which is just as well: those grotesque, parasitic blood suckers have been growing more numerous by the day.
Lest your mind has been wiped by an infectious translucent worm, New York City has been invaded by a viral outbreak of vampire-like creatures – whose design eschews the pale hunks of Twilight for squelching beasts whose mouths rip apart to reveal a slimy tentacle – controlled by Robert Maillet’s the Master.
The ancient monster’s re-emergence draws his old foe Abraham Setrakian (a superbly cantankerous David Bradley) out of hiding to foil his plot to create an immortal master race. With such a dangerous mission to undertake, Setrakian wisely recruits a merry band of vampire hunters – led by a be-wigged Corey Stoll – to watch his back.
Season two picks up in the immediate aftermath of Setrakian’s failed attempt to kill the Master, as the crusty crusader follows a trail of vampire blood that leads to an intriguing encounter with Vaun and his strigoi squad. Meanwhile, Stoll’s epistemologist Ephraim has turned his attention to creating a bio weapon that will wipe out the contagion for good (that is, when he’s not peering down the bottom of an empty vodka bottle).
As for the Master, flashbacks reveal more about his backstory, while the ancient giant recruits Ephraim’s ex-wife (Natalie Brown) to play mother to his fresh horde of blind zombie children. Yeah, it’s that kind of show.
It’s immediately clear the series has eradicated its pacing issues as the extended season opener rampages by in an hour of gripping television. Forgoing the usual first-episode-back set up, BK, NY tears straight into the action, flitting confidently between storylines to ensure we never get a chance to steady our nerves. The effect is positively exhilarating.
Even with such relentless plotting, writers Carlton Cuse and Chuck Hogan somehow still find time to develop their characters further, opening the episode with a prologue (guest-directed by Del Toro in the Mexican filmmaker’s trademark gothic fairytale style) that provides a much-needed expansion of the show’s vampire mythology.
Of course, the main focus is rightly on eliminating parasitic bloodsuckers via the most gruesome, inventive methods possible; and in that regard, this episode delivers by the bucket load.
Director Gregory Hoblit invents chaotic action sequences with an almost child-like glee, first with a cringe-making demonstration of the strigoi’s ruthlessness that makes great use of the ancients’ twitching and cracking limbs to rattle the nerves; and then closing with a breathless chase sequence that plays like a classic arcade game as Setrakian and his team flee a vampire horde whilst locked inside a dark storage facility where the only light is provided by sparks of gunfire.
Some of The Strain’s issues still persist – namely a disjointed story and a tendency towards cliché when it comes to its characters’ personalities (see Ephraim’s sudden relapse into alcoholism); but at a time when fantasy series are frequently geared towards grim introspection (we’re looking at you, Penny Dreadful), it’s refreshing to watch a cult show that’s perfectly content to have gory, gratuitous fun. Even when the fate of humanity is at stake.
Click here to watch a trailer for The Strain – Season Two