Sunday, August 28, 2016

B-Movie Fun On TV: FX’s The Strain

Note: the following post contains some spoilers.

I don’t know if the shortened ten episode third season of FX’s The Strain, (less than the first two 13 episode seasons), which begins tonight, signals the end of the series’ run. If it did, it would match up neatly with the trilogy of books written by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) and Chuck Hogan, which I have not read. (The authors, who are executive producers on the series and wrote the intriguing pilot which Del Toro also directed, have indicated that a three to five season run of The Strain would be optimum.) I do know that I look forward to seeing if the motley group of defenders of New York City, beset by a plague of gruesome looking vampires, will prevail in the end, even as the metropolis seems slowly to be falling to the undead. If season one of The Strain introduced the concept, where a plane landing in New York from Germany is found to contain almost an entire load of dead passengers and crew, except for a few mysteriously alive (and infected) survivours, who begin to infect the populace at large, season two upped the ante as a specific group of (anti) heroes united to fight off the invaders, even as a second faction of vampires, with their own agenda, claimed to be aiding the humans in their fight. Season three, from what I gather, will suggest that the city as a whole has been written off by the outside world, which makes the fight to save it all the more desperate and crucial. Whatever the case, I hope The Strain will continue to offer up its unique brand of B-Movie (TV) thrills, social commentary, humourous asides, and, yes, a bit of acceptable silliness in the process.

What makes The Strain stand out, both as a genre show and a drama, is its original take on the vampire mythos. For one, these are not elegant looking vampires who infect/convert their victims with a bite on the neck, but very creepy appearing creatures whose long appendage like tongues sprout out and suck the life out of anyone unlucky enough to cross their paths. They’re also zombie like in how they attack and react to humans. Then there is the opposition, who comprise all manner of ethnicities and orientations and are reluctantly brought together in this fight for the city. They include Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), a crusty Armenian Jewish Holocaust survivour and expert on the Strigoi (Romanian for vampires, which is where Setrakian grew up, in a country rife with superstitions), who is easily one of the most original Jewish characters to appear on any TV show; alcoholic Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (Corey Stoll), of the Center for Disease Control, one of the first medicos to realize what New York is up against; sardonic Ukrainian American exterminator Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand), whose bug killing skills come in handy when fighting off vampires and who provides the best zingers in the series; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas), a bisexual British hacker who has permanently damaged the Internet on behest of the vampire overlords but upon realizing what she has done has joined forces with those who want to best them; Augustin "Gus" Elizalde (Miguel Gomez), a jumpy Hispanic gang member and ex-con who ends up playing a large part in the resistance and Angel Guzman Hurtado (Joaquin Cosio), a dour retired Mexican wrestler, also brought into the fray.

They face off against Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), a mysterious billionaire seeking immortality through the ingestion of vampire fluids; Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), a vicious Nazi who is an acolyte of The Master, the vampire who rules over all, and who has been fighting against Abraham Setrakian since they both encountered each other in the Treblinka concentration camp (with Eichorst as Commander, preying on the Jews imprisoned there and Setrakian as inmate) and Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesey), a flamboyant rock star, who was one of the infected plane passengers and has now been chosen as the host body for The Master, who can be forced out of whatever body he tends to inhabit. Their battles play out even as the city slowly succumbs to an increased presence of vampires; yet the city still tries to carry out business as usual and its plucky protectors don’t give up the fight. (Incidentally, I don’t think using the Holocaust as a backdrop for the show’s horrific goings on in Treblinka is offensive, namely because it situates evil in a milieu rife with it and reminds us of what happened there.)

David Bradley as Professor Abraham Setrakian.

Though filmed in Toronto, The Strain does a commendable job of impersonating the Big Apple, particularly as the city does its level best to act as if nothing is happening. Skyscrapers are on fire, attacks on its citizens are ramping up yet other denizens of NYC continue to run their restaurants and even go to work. The New Yorkers, aside from the protagonists mentioned above, either do their level best to ignore what is going on around them, deny it, as Goodweather’s boss did, until the reality caught up to him, to say the least; or, in a few cases, cop to the threat they face. (An aside indicated that about three million of the city’s eleven million residents were now infected.) One nice touch; the Internet is now spottily effective so radio in particular plays a major role in informing the populace of what is going on, even as it is (deliberately?) vague in spelling out what that actually is. That lends a retro, pleasingly old fashioned feel to the show, reminiscent, of course, of Orson Welles’ classic and effective radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Another pleasing aspect of The Strain is its refreshing lack of sentimentality and believability in showcasing how people actually behave. Dr. Goodweather, for one, is something of an asshole, even callous in making clear to his grieving son Zach (Ben Hyland in season one, Max Charles in season two and three) that his mother Kelly (Natalie Brown) is now one of the vampires. (Admittedly the kid is more than a bit too stubborn in coming around to acknowledging that unpleasant fact.) Professor Setrakian, still grieving his murdered wife Miriam, at the hands of Eichorst, has become a cantankerous old man, who keeps everyone at bay, though, grudgingly he is becoming friends with Vasily Fet, due to the latter’s instigation. And Dutch is more than a little emotionally confused, torn between her genuine affections for Vasily and that of her ex – girlfriend Nikki (Nicola Correia-Damude). This group of vampire fighters is both eclectic and fascinating in how they mesh. And in their refusal to knuckle under to the danger, and even in the sheer recklessness of some of their actions, they’re dyed in the wool New Yorkers. (The Strain wouldn’t be half so interesting if it took place anywhere else though the side trip Dr. Goodweather took to the nation's capital last season was of compelling interest, and laying out in greater detail what the United States and the rest of the world are facing.) There’s also a nice nod to horror-meister H.P. Lovecraft in The Strain, namely with the revealed existence of the Occido Lumen, a medieval volume which may contain secrets in how to defeat the Strigoi, and which Palmer and Setrakian have been chasing after for decades.

Season two also introduced a new character, tough as nails Staten Island councilwoman Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis), who has pacified her borough by eliminating all the undead, and now plans to make New York vampire-free. Feraldo, perhaps a tribute to the late Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, is an indicator, that unlike the pedestrian The Walking Dead, which seems to exist to exist only to kill off most of its characters at the hands of the zombies and has a dull back story in the process, The Strain is interested in flash and blood, nuanced characters, whose fates are not at all predictable. (Even Eichorst is given a history, pre-World War Two, which humanizes him somewhat. Yes, Nazi villains are dramatically easy but he’s still a fascinating character.) There’s even a bit of social commentary as when Feraldo lets New York’s 1% know that they will have to pony up some much needed dough for expenses, staff, weaponry, etc. to win the fight against the vampire threat. (Predictably the rich folk squawk at this demand.)

Ruta Gedmintas (as Dutch Velders) and Corey Stoll (as Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather) in The Strain.

A word, too about the excellent special effects, courtesy of Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom who supervise them and the series’ generally taut direction. They’re both convincing and scary, never more so than in the season one episode which took place at a gas station/convenience store and was one of the most frightening stand-offs I've ever seen, on television or, in the movies for that matter. The use (not overuse) of the vampire makeup and killing scenes as in the gas station sequence, lends an air of dread to The Strain which keeps you on edge throughout. (Contrast that to the dull Walking Dead trope, which from what I’ve observed, during the two seasons or so of watching the show, is ponderous dialogue and situation, interrupted by zombie carnage from time to time. Those bits make you jump but they’re more a startling shock effect than actual embedded scares.) Ramin Djawadi’s spooky music is effective, too.

I’ll concede that season two got a bit ridiculous as Setrakian and company kept facing off against Eichorst and never once managed to kill him though they kept coming tantalizingly close. The Strain also backed off from killing off any of its major characters in that season as it did early on so in the show – there’s so much at stake here and the villains so dangerous that you know victory has to come with tragic casualties - so by the time it, got around to doing so, in the season two finale, it was a case of too little, too late. I wasn’t emotionally invested in that death but, instead, relieved that, finally, someone important was being offed. (Fortunately, based on my favorurites, it was one of the least interesting of the group’s members.) I’m also unimpressed, so far, by the history/back story of The Strain, relating to the ‘original’ seven vampires (the Ancients) and their place in the centuries-long conflict with The Master. (It’s the most underwhelming part of the show and a bit too much like The Mummy for my tastes.)

Those quibbles aside, The Strain is quirky and gripping enough that I’ll stay with the ride. We need genre dramas that don’t take themselves entirely seriously – there’s always a bit of an undercurrent of spoofiness to the proceedings in The Strain such as with Prof. Setrakian’s lethal walking stick, which is a running joke in the show – and that stay faithful to the sturdy elements of timeless B movie/TV fodder, namely strong acting, smart storytelling and heaping dollops of imagination. Enjoy!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on groundbreaking movies in the fall. He will also be lecturing on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, beginning on Sept. 8.

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