Alec Stern: Vampires, cannibals and the challenges of TV horror

By Alec Stern, Daily TV Columnist
Published September 21, 2014

There are few things better than a good scary movie … for me, at least. I count “The Shining” as one of my favorite films. I saw “The Omen” remake on 6/6/06. I haven’t missed an opening weekend of any of the “Saw” installments. (There were seven of them … seven.) But television horror is an entirely different beast, if not solely because it’s so much harder to pull off. Whereas horror movies are almost always characterized by their quickly developing narratives and one, simple mission — get in, get scared, get out — that mentality doesn’t work on the small screen. When 90 minutes becomes a potentially years-long saga, there needs to be something more.

One of the newest offerings in the horror TV landscape is FX’s “The Strain” from writer-director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). The series premiered on July 13 and was met with a warm critical and commercial response. But as the season comes to a close, I find myself questioning the series’ viability in the long-run. In other words, I’m beginning to think this show kind of sucks.

Don’t get me wrong; “The Strain” is scary, and it’s featured some of the most genuinely terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen on television. But this isn’t the big screen, and after many hours of commitment to the series — much longer than any horror movie — it’s clear that “The Strain” uses horror in more ways than one. In reality, “The Strain” hides behind its genre, akin to a costumed kid on Halloween. The appearance might do the job, but ultimately, it’s all just a ruse.

Because really, “The Strain” isn’t a good show — a fact that becomes clearer with each passing week. It’s full of stock characters, cheesy dialogue and illogical developments, chief among them that bureaucratic red tape holding Ephraim back from fighting the bloodthirsty monsters terrorizing New York City. Or that every infected character, as their eyes bleed and their hair falls out, continues to insist that it’s “just the flu.”

Even the best of Hollywood’s recent major horror movie releases — “The Conjuring” and “Insidious,” both from James Wan — weren’t narratively exceptional. The former was a run-of-the-mill exorcism drama, while the latter stretched for a hokey mythology. But at slim running times, none of that really mattered. Ultimately, each was not only thrilling, but inventive in their thrills, catapulting them among the most successful horror movies.

The best of Hollywood’s recent TV horror additions, however, are far more spectacular than “The Strain,” or even “The Conjuring” and “Insidious.” Tucked away on NBC (yes, NBC), the second season of “Hannibal” outshined everything else on television so far this year; that includes “True Detective,” the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” and the first part of “Mad Men” ’s final season. It’s undoubtedly the greatest horror series on television, not because it’s frightening, but because it can be defined by so much more than fear (though a late season Michael Pitt episode will most certainly give you nightmares). “Hannibal” is exceptionally well written, fantastically acted and stunningly crafted. And on top of it all, its visual splendor provides so much depth and nuance that it’s almost impossible to classify the series at all. “Hannibal” isn’t just one thing, and all of its moving parts come together in such a delicate and profound way that you’ll forget all about Anthony Hopkins or any of the source material that inspired it.

On a different FX series, the creators have also mastered the horror genre as it pertains to television. Despite the fact that it’s in the name, “American Horror Story” doesn’t put horror first. Because when you’re telling a story that’s 13 hours long, and takes its audience months to experience, being scary isn’t enough. On all three of the series’ iterations, the horror is supplemented by complex characters, believable story arcs, dark humor and frequent, if not always impactful, social commentary.

The other day, my brother asked me what “The Strain” was even about. “Vampires,” I said. “But not like, sexy vampires. They’re scary.” He was unimpressed, but there wasn’t really much else I could say to try and impress him.

Conversely, what is “American Horror Story” about? Take the first season — “Murder House.” Its logline: A family moves into a house that is also home to all the ghosts of the people who have died there. But that’s just a starting point to navigate the real nuances and dimensions of its characters — “Horror Story” ’s Trojan horse. Holistically, the first season is about marriage, young love, death and deceit. It explored infidelity and grief in the face of trauma. It gave us Jessica Lange’s fascinating portrayal of Constance Langdon. It was serious enough to tackle school shootings and weird enough to have an unclothed Dylan McDermott fight a masked man in a rubber suit. And on top of it all, it was frightening. From its chilling opening sequence to its home invasion-themed episode to its “Rosemary’s Baby”-inspired ending, “Murder House” was still plenty scary. But first and foremost, it was good.

That isn’t the case with “The Strain” — because even after ten hours, it’s still just about vampires. And if I could potentially be watching this show when I’m 26 or 27, just about vampires isn’t going to cut it.