Guillermo del Toro is tired of romanticized vampires pining away for lost loves — misbegotten Byronic heroes. Instead, the master director went back much father than Victorian literature and into the history of the myth in creating FX’s newest hit series The Strain. I sat down with del Toro, his co-creators and cast at this year’s Comic-Con to discuss his latest project.
The visionary director/writer had gone to Fox in the mid 2000s to pitch his treatment for this series, about a vampire apocalypse triggered by the introduction of a virus. The network said “No.” So del Toro and writer Chuck Hogan (The Town) turned to the printed word, churning out three novels before creating the television series for FX. The cable network has come to be synonymous with quality original scripted series, and often called the best network that isn’t HBO.
The series begins when a plane lands in New York, sitting dead on the tarmac for hours, and when the CDC arrive on the scene, they find the passengers dead — except for four of them. But the four are also sick and presumably dying. The plane’s cargo includes a elaborately carved wooden crate, and its mysterious owners find a way to wrest it from the security of the government agency.
The virus that has afflicted the plane’s passengers isn’t just any old virus. That would likely be too pedestrian for del Toro, particularly given that viruses and the CDC are the topic du jour of genre TV (see The Last Ship, The Walking Dead, Helix, etc.). No. This particular virus, manifesting and spreading as thread worms are a vehicle for creating cadres of new vampires ready to terrorize New York and beyond.
The Strain is a unique mash-up of horror (a del Toro hallmark) and science fiction (the battle against a viral vampiric epidemic) with a historical resonance that touches on a centuries-old battle between good and evil, with a route directly through the holocaust. The pure evil of the series is represented by Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel) and “The Master,” the shadowy centuries-old puppet master behind the coming vampire apocalypse. Eichorst, a World War II Nazi who ran death camps is no longer human, forced to wear prosthetics to conceal his true nature to the world.
But one man knows Eichorst for who he is, and that is Abraham Setrakian (the wonderful David Bradley, last seen in Game of Thrones as Walder Frey, the man responsible for the “Red Wedding” and the deaths of Robb and Catelyn Stark). Abraham, a seemingly mild-mannered pawn shop owner (who quite well knows how to defend himself) is a survivor of the death camps, refusing to be intimidated by Eichorst. His quest is to expose the evil for what he knows it to be–if anyone believes him.
At the heart of the story is a family drama, as the good guys try to get at the heart of the epidemic afflicting New York, while trying to manage lives torn apart by the demanding nature of their work, and personal tragedy. The series, intense and scary as it is, is not without del Toro’s signature black humor, particularly in the guise of survivor Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesey), a has-been, middle-aged rocker in ghoulish face paint. He’s a good candidate for The Master, and by end of episode three, Gabriel begins to embody some of the physical traits of his new self, some of which are quite…unsettling to him and, quite possibly, the audience.
Some have criticized The Strain as lacking del Toro’s signature depth. I respectfully disagree, believing that at its heart, in addition to being a damn scary series grounded in the reality of today’s viral bogeyman (as del Toro called it), the series strikes is a cautionary tale about power, hubris, and our failings and fragility in face of both grand evil, and the more grounded reality of the biological monsters with which our brave new 21st Century world is faced. Indeed, asked whether his vampires or the threat of the virus itself is scarier, del Toro told me without hesitation: the virus of course.
More on my interview with del Toro and the rest of the cast and crew of The Strain later in the week as I go through hours of footage from all my Comic-Con coverage of this and other television series.
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