Martin Carr reviews the first episode of The Strain…
A Boeing 767 flying out of Berlin lands at JFK and goes dark. Its fuselage is cold. Every window blind is drawn except one and the passengers are silent. Someone calls in Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) to investigate. Together with Jim Kent (Sean Astin) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) he begins ruling out viral possibilities before this new contagion reaches Manhattan.
Meanwhile Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), an old Armenian pawnbroker, watches from his Harlem bolthole as media interest turns to increasing concern. Something without conscience is intent on eradicating the population, which will require more than the efforts of one old man and a team of experts to quash. Elsewhere ailing billionaire Eldrich Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) awaits the arrival of a visitor. For both men know there will be no second chances.
In its opening minutes The Strain is most reminiscent of Soderbergh’s Contagion crossed with 24. Time clocks pop up every other scene to instil urgency, while physical contact stats are bandied around before we even get on the plane. Character development feels unforced and efficient while movie homages are rife. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have laid the groundwork here for others to follow. This reinvention of the Dracula myth adapted from their trilogy is intricately layered but ultimately character driven. Directed by the man behind Pacific Rim and Pan’s Labyrinth, at its heart The Strain is about the power a single emotion has to overrule all others.
Corey Stoll as ‘Eph’ pronounced ‘F’, is a separated father married to the job, devoted to a son and attempting to save his marriage. David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian has survived concentration camps, faced down the most barbaric of humiliations yet remains resolute, harbouring his devotion beneath a pawnbrokers shop in Harlem. Other team members are not allowed to show any cards yet, hence Jim Kent (Sean Astin) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) have little impact on proceedings. What we do get to see is Stoll’s ‘everyman’ abilities, which he so effectively showcased as manipulated congressman Peter Russo in season one of House of Cards. However for all his running around it is not Stoll, but David Bradley as a thinly veiled Van Helsing archetype who leaves the larger impression.
Bradley recently played William Hartnell in dramatization An Adventure In Space and Time, which charted the birth of Doctor Who. It is however as Filch the caretaker of Hogwarts that most people will remember him. Both himself and Jonathan Hyde as Eldritch Palmer have minimal screen time but exploit these limits fully. In a role originally played by John Hurt he proves adept at scene stealing. No more so than when he is pressing a knife tip to the radial artery of an assailant.
What ultimately appeals to me is the breadth which del Toro and Hogan have worked into this first episode. There are holocaust references, both in relation to Abraham and also the ‘Stoneheart’ group lead by Hyde’s Eldritch Palmer. There are film ‘easter eggs’ throughout to Men In Black, Schindler’s List, Don’t Look Now and Shallow Grave, not to mention Fincher’s use of text messaging in House of Cards replicated here. Moments of graphic violence are undercut with pitch black comedy and delivered with a delicate touch. I would give you an example but that would ruin the surprise. Suffice to say that after the disappointment of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has thrown down the gauntlet here redeeming himself in the process.