Ask film fans to explain to you why Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is such a great movie, and they’ll almost always revert to the often-mythologized idea that Spielberg didn’t show the shark for at least the first hour of the film. Many of these fans will go on to give you a lecture in “less is more” horror filmmaking. They’ll point out the subtleties in Kubrick’s The Shining or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and they’ll remind you how important it is to see the monster only when absolutely necessary.
Guillermo del Toro has never been that kind of filmmaker. Throughout his career, which by now includes everything from the wonderfully creepy The Devil’s Backbone to the delightfully bombastic Pacific Rim, he’s made a living with a “more is more” approach, ensuring that we don’t just see the monsters, but that we see every quivering, biologically disgusting detail.
The Strain, based on a trilogy of novels del Toro wrote with Chuck Hogan, continues that tradition. The TV series, guided by former Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, tracks a vampire outbreak that begins with a suspicious biological pathogen and evolves into a full-on takeover of Manhattan by the undead. As such, there are monsters everywhere. They roam the streets at night, preying on an unwitting public that still thinks the biggest problem they have is a virus. They dwell in sewage tunnels during the day, waking en masse when disturbed. They move under the massive, guiding hand of a giant, hooded overlord known as The Master, who himself is a combination of Nosferatu and an unstoppable comic book force not unlike Bane. They appear constantly, their biology is intricately explained by the show, and the camera never flinches from them. Not exactly the Jaws method.
Somewhere near the final stretch of its first season, this approach meant The Strain was perilously close to simply becoming The Walking Dead, but with vampires. There were numerous sequences of characters standing side by side amid a shambling crowd of monsters the withered and dogged vampire hunter Setrakian (David Bradley) termed “strigoi,” pistols drawn, waiting for one of the creatures to strike. When they did, a battle would ensue, and our heroes had to stalk off into the night to fight another day. Survival was the imperative, the monsters they fought were little more than vessels for a terrifying appendage through which they drank the blood of the unlucky, and the suspense was rooted only in who would live and who would die. It was still entertaining, but it wasn’t always sophisticated.
Then, something wonderful happened, and a story thread that mostly bubbled under the surface during Season 1 rose to the top. The Master has a plan, you see, and it’s not just to drink as much blood as possible. No, he wants domination, and he plans to get it with the help of a former-Nazi acolyte (Richard Sammel) and a businessman obsessed with immortality (Jonathan Hyde). In the midst of an engineered conspiracy keeping the rest of the public blind, it’s up to Setrakian (who’s been fighting The Master since World War II), a pair of CDC doctors (Corey Stoll and Mia Maestro), an exterminator (Kevin Durand), and a hacker (Ruta Gedmintas) to stop this plan, and prevent the entire world from being overrun with vampires.
That much is clear going into the Season 1 finale, but by the end of the Season 2 premiere, it’s made much clearer, and much more intriguing. The Master isn’t alone on the super-vampire food chain. He’s actually part of a group of Ancients, vampires as old as humanity, and he’s gone rogue. It turns out the other Ancients also want to bring him down, and so an uneasy alliance between Setrakian and the creatures he’s sworn to hate forms. Meanwhile, The Master, in search of a new body — because The Ancients can, it turns out, transfer their souls — is forming the next step of his plan, one that involves a kind of vampire we’ve never seen on the show before.
That all sounds intriguing enough, but it’s made even better by the show’s determination to not only refuse to shy away from the monsters, but to refuse to shy away from their plans. In the Season 2 premiere, equal time is given to Setrakian and his fight and The Master and his. We see them both scheming, plotting, battling setbacks and celebrating triumphs on equal storytelling footing. Here, del Toro’s love of showing us the monsters is taken to the next level. Even in Pacific Rim, a film that thrived on its monsters, we only really knew the plans of the kaiju through the eyes of a human. Now, the monsters get to pick up the ball and run with it. The Walking Dead has no zombie overlord, but The Strain has a vampire supervillain, and that makes it a unique viewing experience even among the booming horror TV landscape. Sometimes, good horror storytelling is as much about embracing the monster as it is about defeating it. The Strain is an ever-more-compelling TV success story because it aims to do both in equal measure.
The Strain airs Sundays at 10/9C on FX.