Regis Air Flight #753 is arriving at JFK from Berlin—our first warning that, in true Guillermo del Toro fashion, creepy Germans will play a part in the unfolding horror. As the plane begins its descent, a flight attendant is worried. It seems something has been moving in the cargo hold. Sure enough, the hatch promptly explodes and a black thing erupts to the accompaniment of screams.
So far, so creepy.
Enter our hero: Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather, a CDC doctor who is perhaps a little too devoted to his work. Hence the court-appointed counseling sessions with frustrated, estranged wife Kelly. I know this is establishing plot and adding tension, but I’m honestly just trying to wrap my head around frequent character actor (and frequently bald) Corey Stoll’s hair.
While Eph and his partner Nora (Mia Maestro) prepare to enter the “dead” plane, we meet the elderly Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), owner of a pawnshop in Queens. Old he may be, but helpless Abraham most certainly isn’t. When a pair of hoodlums—one of whom happens to be Weevil from Veronica Mars, looking somewhat different with hair; why can’t I stop focusing on everybody’s hair?—try to rob the old man, he responds with an impressive turn of speed and a stone-cold threat. Clearly, Argus Filch is not to be messed with.
(For those keeping score at home, add another checkmark to your Guillermo del Toro Staples List: wise elderly man who is more than he seems.)
Finding the hapless passengers of the Regis flight still in their seats, seemingly unmarked by trauma or sickness, Eph and Nora are at quite a loss. There’s no logical explanation for how 206 people were so suddenly and summarily killed, or how four somehow survived.
Perhaps it has something to do with the superbly unsettling Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), a man with a tailored suit, German accent, and cadaverous face currently visiting the Stoneheart Group. Alarms should be going off: this has malevolent shadow organization written all over it. Sure enough, frequent baddie Jonathan Hyde is there looking none too healthy; it seems that the wealthy and colorfully named Eldritch Palmer (Hyde) has made a deal with a devil…
A devil with a taste for finely carved wooden coffins, that is, as Eph and Co. discover when they explore the plane’s cargo hold and find a giant box filled with dirt. Which, as anyone worth their folkloric salt will tell you, is a must-have for any vampire on the go.
After so many years of romantic bloodsuckers with gelled hair, I, for one, am more than happy to see a truly grotesque take on the monster. Del Toro has certainly delivered on that front, as we see the hulking creature from the plane make quick work of the airport controller: feeding, dispatching, and then viciously smashing the man’s head to jelly before back-pedaling swiftly with a tentacly screech.
Bloodthirsty worms, sword canes, head-smashings—truly this is a show after my gorehound heart.
At the medical examiner’s office, the autopsies begin and the cause of death is finally determined. It seems the passengers all share the same distinctive puncture to the carotid artery, but there’s no bruising (which should be impossible) and almost no blood left in the bodies. Too bad Eph is too pragmatic at this point to draw the obvious conclusion that vampires are to blame.
So when Abraham arrives at the airport and tries to warn our hero, he gets mistaken as a kook and carted off to jail for his pains. When will people in horror scenarios learn to listen to the raving believers, man? It’s only after they discover the soil-filled coffin is missing—snatched up by something in the space of seconds—that they start to wonder if he wasn’t perhaps onto something…
Unfortunately, the undead Nazi’s errand boy, Gus (Miguel Gomez), is already heading out of the airport with the coffin in tow. Eph puts in the call to check every vehicle for it, and for a moment we could almost hope that the baddies’ plan is about to be thwarted when Eph’s capable coworker Jim Kent (Sean Astin) stops the van. But—surprise!—it appears that Kent’s in the Stoneheart Group’s pocket.
For shame, Samwise. Whatever would Mr. Frodo say?
Well, if what happens to the medical examiner is a good gage for what’s to come, he’d be unable to put his full disappointment into words. Good job condemning New York to worm-filled hearts, an unquenchable taste for blood, and lots of screaming, Kent. As someone who’s more than a little squicked by parasites and things that burrow under your skin, I totally understand that poor M.E.’s terror and revulsion right before the pack of undead passengers pounces on him.
It did make for one helluva awesome shot, though, complete with beating, wormy heart squirming across the floor.
Body horror at its finest in the cold blue palette del Toro favors so well; as a director who conveys emotion through color as much as dialogue, this whole pilot is full of his saturated fingerprints. The blues and silvers of the dead and diseased and grieving—the heavy golds and sepias of the pawnshop, runway, hangar, and jail.
It’s no coincidence that Eph and Abraham, our heroes, are frequently surrounded by gold while the villains/monsters are more often blue-washed. Just look at the last two scenes featuring each group. Eph and his team resolve to focus on studying the recovered parasites to find their answers while standing on an orange-lit bay at the airport. While Eichhorst and Palmer discuss the coming “purity”—is it any surprise Nazis are totally down with this vampire plague?—in a cold and sterile high-rise framed in blue.
In del Toro’s visual lexicon, earth tones equal humanity while inhuman evil is icy cold. It’s something the audience might not consciously pick up on, but trust me: you absorb this message anyway. It’s part of what makes del Toro such a great filmmaker. He knows how to use every tool in his arsenal to tell his story.
And what a brutal story this show is going to be. This episode opens with Abraham’s voiceover discussing a hunger that outlasts life itself: the need for love. A need that, as the closing, disquieting, poetic scene with the now vampiric child and her father makes explicitly clear, is just as destructive as it is beautiful. Humanity does awful things for love. And there are monsters that won’t hesitate to exploit that love.
If the series lives up to the promise of this premiere, The Strain is going to be a brutal, visually striking elegy.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.