When we last saw Dr. Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his rag-tag team of vampire hunters — young son Zach (Max Charles), lover and fellow CDC coworker Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), vampire expert and Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), and hacker Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) — things weren't looking too bright.
Abrahams's plan to drive the Master, the source of the vampiric plague, into deadly sunlight failed; the Strigoi defied all expectations and managed to escape before he was immolated. And just to cap off the day's failure, Eph and Zach came face-to-face with the freshly turned Kelly (Natalie Brown), confirming their worst suspicions about what had happened to their wife and mother.
The first season closed pessimistically: with Eph breaking his sober streak by downing a shot of booze and the group driving off into a chaotic night full of fires and bloodshed. That final shot and voice-over suggested that New York was as good as gone, the first large-scale victim to the Strigoi's push for global domination.
So when Season 2 kicks off the following day, with our heroes fortifying Vasiliy's sprawling apartment, I was somewhat taken aback. It seems things weren't quite so dire as that finale suggested. People are still going in to work. Wholesale anarchy has yet to take hold.
In fact, New York appears to almost be taking the vampocalypse in stride. The city talks openly of “vampires”. The daylit streets are full of people. Two-faced villain Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) stands up in front of television cameras beside the mayor and pledges money to combat the threat.
And rather than flee the infested city, Eph and Nora decide to turn their energy towards creating a biological weapon.
One of this series' greatest strengths is in how it weaves modern science into the classic mythology of vampires, transforming a superstition into a really terrifying plague rat. Guillermo del Toro took great pains to make his vampires as disgusting as possible, removing every romantic aspect and amping up the gross-out factor. No elegant, graceful charmers for him — only rabid beasts that screech like howler monkeys and move in a herky-jerky, unsettling crab sidle, their bodies visibly decaying and reshaping into something alien and grotesque.
They're still obviously evil and terrifying, and there are elements of them that remain mystical, like the telepathic hivemind. But the emphasis on the viral, contagious nature of the creatures gives the audience a deeper understanding of the threat. By drawing allusions to other ravaging diseases, we're able to better picture ourselves in the situation. We may not know what it's like to run down a street filled with monsters, but we've all had some experience — firsthand or through family — of fatal diseases like cancer. It's not difficult for us to imagine how it would feel to know your body is turning against you and there's no escape. It's properly sickening stuff.
Usually, ignorance in horror is more frightening and dangerous; in The Strain's case, it just heightens the dread.
The premiere does a good job of setting up the dichotomy of science and superstition as a major theme for the season. The opening sequence is literally presented as a dark fairy tale given to Abraham, the backstory of the Master shown in a style that's reminiscent of Hammer Horror. It would be difficult to imagine a more classic origin tale for a monster.
Then, still reeling from their recent defeat, Abraham is taken to the Ancients, the Strigoi that want the Master stopped as much as the humans do. They'll offer him a devil's alliance in exchange for information; which reminds him of the existence of a legendary book on vampires, a book that may contain the answers he needs to end this invasion.
While Abraham further entrenches himself in the mysticism and legend that has always guided him and decides to focus on tracking down this fabled work, Eph recommits himself to the medicine and fact he's always trusted. “Seeing as how, as a vampire hunter, I'm total shit, I'm gonna go back to being a doctor,” he tells Vasiliy when the brawny exterminator shares his own plan for clearing the city block-by-block.
With two of the strongest-willed people in the group pulling in opposite directions, it seems likely that our heroes will clash — and frequently — this season. How safe will everyone be if they divide along a strict line of science and superstition: Eph and Nora on one side, Abraham and the loyal Vasiliy on the other?
Still, Eph and Nora may very well be on the right track. The plague is too virulent and the vampires' numbers are only growing. Humanity's best chance for survival lies in a fast-acting and far-reaching weapon. Should their anti-vampire plague work, it could be a devastating blow for the Master's plans. Abraham's quest for a mystical book could prove ineffectual and waste time; and while Vasiliy's work on the ground-level is helpful and well-intentioned, there's only so much one man (or a man and a woman) can achieve with their own hands.
And time definitely is of the essence. Now that the Master is fully aware of our heroes — not just Abraham, whose grudge is old and long-held, but Eph and Vasiliy and Nora — he's already started to focus on removing them from his path. To that end, Kelly Goodweather will be a formidable weapon given her instinctual tie to “dear one” Zach. And, as we saw in the premiere's closing scene, the Master is already creating new vampires. The “Feelers” may surprise the defenders and give Kelly a powerful ace to play…
The Strain doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its horror. The horror of contamination and transformation: the death sentence the slightest cut carries, without any hope of cure or treatment. The horror of love perverted: seeing loved ones return as violent animals. And the horror of an evil that shows no mercy, that is unrelenting in its cruelty, unrepentant as it destroys families and warps children to its own ends.
The scenes of visually stunning desperate action, such as the climactic rush through an infested storage warehouse where the timed lights flicker and reveal vampires at every turn, are frightening in a way that leaves us breathless and pulling back from the screens. But it's the body horror, the threat of the invader and contaminator, that gives the show its sharpest teeth.
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.