So Guillermo del Toro is a one cool dude. Fans of horror know this. The guy seriously loves the genre, particularly vampires. Anyone who’s seen Blade 2 gets the impression that the man had something more to say about the bloodsuckers. That something was in 2009’s novel The Strain, followed by it’s sequels The Fall and The Night Eternal. After what seemed like forever to find a distributor for what was initially envisioned as a television series all along, FX presented the first season of the adaptation in 2014. Now that the first season has hit home video, the rest of us can finally see what del Toro was cooking.
An airliner lands at JFK International Airport and immediately shuts down on the runway, with no contact or communication from anyone on board. The CDC is called in to investigate. Four survivors are found on the plane. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City, decides to enact a quarantine. However, as events unfold, Goodweather discovers that there’s something more sinister to this contagion: an ancient strain of vampirism that threatens all of humanity.
Right off the bat, I fell in love with del Toro’s vision of the vampire. The man worked with series co-creator Chuck Hogan to not only put a unique spin on what a vampire is, but also grounds it with as much science as they can. I always get a kick when they successfully pull this off, as it makes the creatures that much more real. Heck, del Toro even tried to do it as far back as Mimic. Later on, the ties to science is driven further when you get to the autopsies. Of course, it just wouldn’t be a show without vampires if you didn’t have some plasma flowing. Aside from the new take on how vampires feed, there are a host of other gory parts, including smashed heads, decapitations, parasite action and more.
On the acting front, the cast as a whole does an adequate job. Corey Stoll, Mía Maestro and Sean Astin all do well as Goodweather, Martinez and Kent, respectively. David Bradley really hits home as Holocaust survivor and pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian, who turns out to be a cold-blooded vampire hunter. As the perfect antagonist (even if it’s a bit cliched), we get Richard Sammel as Thomas Eichhorst, a Nazi now turned vampire. Sammel’s scenes with Bradley are truly unnerving.
Despite all of the effort del Toro and Hogan have put into cramming the series with interesting characters and their own vampire mythology, there are some drawbacks. In particular, a subplot involving Ephraim and his family. While on one hand, the drama between Ephraim and his soon-to-be ex-wife and their son does add another dimension to the character, it slows the show down by taking the focus away from the real threat. It’s not the same situation as the Rick-Lori-Shane triangle in The Walking Dead, as the zombie menace has already overrun everything. In The Strain, however, Ephraim’s personal drama threatens to take away from the impending threat of the vampire menace.
It’s still early going, but del Toro’s vision is off to a good start. With a wealth of backstory and his own mythology to explore and develop, The Strain is definitely a nice alternative now that True Blood has ended. The cast is definitely strong, with some excellent acting and characters. Having some great gore effects helps out, too. del Toro’s longterm plans are for the series to go for at least three to five seasons. And with the strength of what’s been seen so far, it shouldn’t be a surprise if things continue as planned.
The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer simply rocks. Minute details like skin and fabric readily pop out. Colours are vibrant and black levels are appropriately inky. Contrast is excellent, with no debris like dirt to speak of.
Like the video, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is awesome. Packing appropriate oomph and wide dynamic range, the track envelops the listener, making for a great immersive experience. Dialogue is crisp, clear and balanced with goings-on in the background, and is still easy to hear in spite of noisy environments like an airport or office.
Unfortunately, extras are lacking. On the first disc, we get “In The Beginning”, which runs about 15 minutes. The featurette has the cast and crew talk about the pilot episode, the story, the characters and the production value of the show. del Toro also talks about how for the first time with The Strain, he’s able to show vampire biology. This is pretty cool, since before that, we only got to see glimpses of his ideas of a vampire’s biology (albeit in altered form) in Blade 2.
On disc 2, “A Novel Approach” centres on del Toro’s inspirations for the original book version of The Strain, as well as his affinity for vampire lore while growing up. He goes on to say writing The Strain was the most enjoyable piece of writing that he’s ever done, and discusses the differences between the novels and the television show. del Toro also talks about keeping the separation between the written version of the story and the filmed version, and how he always meant to keep that separation. The cast also shows up with their input, noting the differences between their characters in the books and the show.
Rounding things up is “Setrakian’s Lair” on disc 3, which has David Bradley taking us on-set for a walkthrough of a his character’s lair. Bradley points out objects and various set pieces, and their significance. Mia Maestro also shows up to discuss the lair, the story, her character and Bradley’s character. Mixed in are a few behind-the-scenes footage shots, as well as tidbits for season two.
Obviously, there’s a lack of real meat to these extras. No commentaries, no real in-depth stuff on effects or characters, no TV spots, etc. The lack of extras is kind of concerning, indicating that FX might not have much faith in the series, or in typical Fox fashion, are being cheap with something that isn’t a runaway hit. Regardless, the lack of quality extras hurts, especially when the show deserves much more than just three short featurettes.