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July 14, 2014 - 12:48am

'The Strain' RECAP: New show brings old-fashioned terror



Alex Intner: Vampires are back, but not in the vein of the way we've seen them recently. "The Strain" marks a return to the classical definition of the monster — one that actually kills people and doesn't sparkle in the sun. This show is significant because it marks writer-director Guillermo del Toro's first foray into American television, and he immediately puts his mark on the pilot. There are some sequences that are utterly terrifying. The scene on the plane and the scene in the medical examiner's room set to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” come to mind right away. At this point, del Toro could probably scare people in his sleep, and he works his magic on this pilot. However, my first question for you, Chloe, is what is on Corey Stoll's head and when will it come to life and eat him?

Chloe Gilke: Perhaps the scariest part of "The Strain" is that awful wig. Aside from any hair distractions, though, Corey Stoll was pretty excellent. Episode director Guillermo Del Toro brought a nice, understated performance from Stoll, and even in the first episode, we have a good grasp on his character. Ephraim Goodweather is a guy who gets "straight A's at his job," but doesn't succeed so much at holding down a family life. He's late to his court-appointed counseling session, and is oblivious to his wife's serious relationship with another man (Matt, who apparently only wears clip-on ties and works at a Sears store). I'm a fan of Del Toro's work and was expecting a lot of good scares from the episode, but I was surprised to be just as engaged in Eph's personal life.

Alex Intner: If Stoll weren't playing this part and adding to the role with his performance, I don't know if I would have been as engaged. He immediately brought the character to life in a way that a lesser actor might not have been able to do. He's the character who pops right away because he's the one who we get the most information about (and he's the first permanent character we meet). He's allowed to deepen slightly beyond the character type in this episode, and that's more than can be said for most of the other characters. Take the David Bradley character, Abraham Setrakian for instance. Bradley has proven himself to be a compelling actor, but his character doesn't really evolve beyond "the old man who knows something bad is going to happen but doesn't share any information." Bradley is saddled with cryptic dialogue that shares nothing, and that hurts the character and what's a really good performance from the actor. The most interesting thing he does is in his first scene where we're introduced to the creepy heart in the jar.

Chloe Gilke: That heart in a jar was awesome. As for Abraham, it's sometimes hard to judge a supporting character based off only a pilot episode. While the lead (in this case, Eph) takes the spotlight, minor characters build more slowly. The pilot just introduces who they are in a few adjectives. We know Abraham is passionate about uncovering the mystery behind the illness, but aside from his scene with the gangbangers, we don't have much development for him yet. The one line that made me really excited for what's to come, though, is when Abraham pricked his finger and dropped the blood for his "dear" pickled heart. There's something more there than just a crazy old man. He's sentimental and almost giddy over the information he has about the virus. Like you said, David Bradley is great, and I'm hoping we get to see more shades of Abraham's character in coming weeks.

Alex Intner: You're right about supporting characters in a pilot like this one, they often fall by the wayside. I'm also looking forward to learning about the two old men, Thomas Eichhorst and Eldritch Palmer. These two other characters only brood in the corner on the screen, but there is clearly a backstory there that is leading them to do what they are doing. Mr. Palmer is rich and sick, and needs to assist Mr. Eichhorst in his actions in bringing the case into Manhattan in order to save himself. These characters suffer from a similar problem to Abraham, but there is some intrigue for me there. They're the catalysts for the series, and I'm curious to see what role they play in the future of the story.

Chloe Gilke: Back at the CDC, some of Eph's colleagues got some tangential screentime. Sean Astin (that's Samwise Gamgee to you) plays kind, concerned Jim Kent. Nora Martinez is Eph's partner in more ways than one, and although her main role in the series seems to be a love interest for Eph, she proved her courage in that scene in the plane. She wasn't afraid to venture into the dangerous cockpit, despite all the men on her headset telling her it wasn't a good idea. Above all, Nora seems pragmatic and intent on gathering knowledge. And, where sometimes stereotypes got the best of some characters (the Latino gangbangers, the evil, vaguely European man and the nagging wife), Nora is refreshingly complex. Speaking of the plane scene, I must also take a moment to geek out about the gorgeous cinematography. The plane was shot in brilliant blue with the sole yellow orbs of Eph's and Nora's hazmat masks providing illumination. The primary-color-based scheme is unique and already provides a sophisticated visual signature for the show. Why hadn't Guillermo Del Toro done TV sooner?

Alex Intner: I agree that Nora makes a compelling female lead. On to the cinematography, del Toro spent months in pre-production before airing in order to get the color scheme and creature design just right, and it paid off in this episode. Like you said, the plane sequence was gorgeous. The way it mixed the neon of the "splatter" under UV light with the standard blues and yellows was just gorgeous. That's how you shoot a scene and establish a tone right off the bat. The way he was able to build the tension throughout the scene leading towards the reveal of the living passengers showed why I would consider him to be a brilliant filmmaker, probably worthy of a place on the list of auteurs working in Hollywood today. Another scene that I mentioned earlier that I loved is the scene in the medical examiner's office. Never has a pop song been so damn scary!

Chloe Gilke: That was a scene that is probably burned in my memory for all eternity. We knew from previous scenes that the worm-like appendages on the heart weren't just cute little grey spaghetti noodles, but our poor medical examiner was not at all prepared to have one suck his hand and for an army of undead to swarm him to the tune of "Sweet Caroline." love incongruous use of sound (sorry, my film major is showing), and this scene illustrated perfectly what I like best about "The Strain." It's gripping and scary, but with a hint of humor and lightheartedness. Maybe it's my sick sense of humor, but I was both on the edge of my seat and stifling audible giggles. Del Toro will have an executive producing credit for the rest of the season, but I'm a little concerned about the series after he steps back. Part of what made the pilot work so well was that it was horror unlike any I've seen on TV before. "The Strain" is scarier than "American Horror Story" and only a fraction as campy as "True Blood," but this might just be due to Del Toro's directing. I think Carlton Cuse, former showrunner of "Lost," will have fun with the mystery of the outbreak, though.

Alex Intner: I love that the show isn't afraid to take a step back from the scary and be funny when it wants to be. It's important that a show like this not take itself too seriously, or risk the fear becoming overbearing. Now, del Toro remained involved throughout the season (he was filming a movie at the same time in Toronto and stopped by the set whenever he could) and the show is adapting his novel (co-written with Chuck Hogan, who co-wrote the pilot and was in the writer's room) so his fingerprints will be all over the story. However, whenever a director with such a distinctive feel steps back from directing, there's the question of whether the series can maintain the visual spectacle is one that should be asked ... look at what happened to "Believe" when Alfonso Cuarón went back to making movies. Like you said, Carlton Cuse's role becomes much more important because of this. I hope he'll have fun with the story and he and del Toro will create a compelling mystery that will keep the show worth watching throughout its 13 episode first season.

Chloe Gilke: Nora told Eph that she noticed he'd gotten a haircut. Maybe he even takes that a step further and, you know, shaves his head ... only time will tell. I can't wait for the next installment, called "The Box" (probably in reference to the mysterious coffin/capsule found in the plane). Talk to you then!