As a horror series, The Strain has had plenty of tense, disgusting, and squirm-inducing moments. Lots of body horror. Some close calls and near misses. We’ve watched likable characters become infected, die, or transform into the undead.
But for all of the cringing and shock factor scenes, I had yet to be properly frightened. I know I’ve built up quite a tolerance for horror but I’m not carved of marble—and I go into such series hoping I’ll get a solid case of the creeps at least once or twice.
With “The Third Rail”, I finally got what I was asking for: an episode that reaches, then maintains, a fever pitch of nerves. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to actually pause it twice and get up for a brisk walk around the house to settle my stomach; I was that tense.
Everything kicks off with a test of Vasiliy’s new gadget, a UVC light bomb. It’s not a resounding success, but Eph does contribute a helpful bit of advice re: turning it into a flashing disco ball o’ death. It’s also the first time the two do more than just shout at each other; but I’m not holding my breath for an epic bromance between these two hotheads.
Upstairs, Nora’s mother Mariela is upset over a missing ashtray. This whole situation is distressing and frustrating, and reminds me that I need to put a clause in my legal paperwork: if I should develop dementia during an apocalyptic scenario I want someone to have power of attorney so they can “take care of me” before I prove such a liability to my loved ones.
Gus arrives home to find the door open and brother Crispin in front of the TV. But he isn’t just strung out on drugs or lazing about, and Gus is forced to use a baseball bat against what used to be his little brother.
Sidenote: the special effects on Crispin following the bat bashing made me immediately flash back to del Toro’s classic The Devil’s Backbone, where the ghostly Santi’s bones and veins were visible through his cadaver-white skin—and he also sported a significant crack in his noggin. Whether that was the make-up department’s intention or not, kudos regardless.
Eph has accepted that killing the Master is the best chance they have in ending the plague, but he’s still uncomfortable with leaving Zack behind. Totally reasonable, considering he pretty much knows Kelly’s been turned and there’s no one else to watch out for his son should their mission fail. And, as he points out, Vasiliy and Abraham aren’t hesitating because they don’t have any loved ones relying on them to come back.
But I share Nora’s anger when he suggests “someone”—meaning her, of course—holds down the fort. It’s not as if they have any sort of strength in numbers right now; if killing the Master is their best bet in saving the city (not to mention the world), every able body is sort of needed in the fight. Sometimes you’ve got to table your parental concerns (and sexism) in survival scenarios for the greater good.
So everyone piles into the bread truck, which is totally a great vehicle for intrepid vampire hunters, and Eph locks Zack and Mariela into the pawnshop. Given Mariela’s deteriorating state, we know this won’t go smoothly.
Gus has had a truly terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The poor guy has seen his best friend, baby brother, and now beloved mother turned into monsters. And after putting down Felix and Crispin, you can’t blame him for baulking at taking out his mother, too. Or for getting out some of his anger on the freshly turned landlord. (Props to Miguel Gomez for his performance in this episode. You can really feel how frayed the recent events have made Gus.)
Down in the subway tunnels beneath what was the World Trade Center, Eph and Co. find sobering reminders of the lives already lost to the plague. Wallets, jewelry, family photos, stuffed animals: all once important pieces of a person’s life, now tossed aside like trash. Humans are, after all, so many trappings. It’s an eerie moment.
Desperate to keep the frantic Mariela calm, Zack strikes a deal. If she sits quietly downstairs he’ll venture out in search of cigarettes for her. Damn it, kid! I know you’re plucky and capable, and yeah it’s still daylight, but now is not the time to be supporting an old woman’s nicotine addiction! You’re in New York City, not exactly the safest of places even when it’s not in the midst of a vampire apocalypse, and looters are running wild in the streets. When you’re already locked into a very secure fortress complete with food and weapons, it doesn’t take a genius to know you stay put.
(Of course, if everyone acted sensibly during a horror story we’d never get any gory deaths or terrifying close scrapes. Doesn’t mean I still can’t complain about it when that particular stupidity trope gets played, though.)
In the tunnels, Eph and Co. navigate a nest of sleeping vampires, narrowly avoid getting creamed by a speeding subway, and see a vamp fricasseed by the eponymous third rail. It’s definitely an action-packed subterranean day.
Zack’s quest for smokes takes a turn for the eventful when some looters swing into the convenience store. And while I applaud the kid for having the sense to hide, who the heck would slip down a ladder into a dark basement when there are vampires about? Good Lord, kid—please make better life choices.
Luckily, the boy’s got an angel on his shoulder and manages to get back upstairs safely, leaving the looting couple to face the bloodsucker before he literally runs into Gus. All things considered, Gus is rallying quite well. Armed with a handy axe that he sure ain’t afraid to use, it looks like Eichorst’s former errand boy is going to make a deft vampire slayer.
And here’s where things get claustrophobic: Eph and Co. follow the vampires’ trail until they reach a literal hole in the wall. Which of course they have to crawl through. And of course Vasiliy gets stuck.
Oh God, rarely have I been so tense. Cramped spaces + threat of cave-in + VAMPIRES CRAWLING UP BEHIND YOU = NO NO NO.
Eph starts to hear Kelly begging for help and, being an idiot, rushes off into the darkness. Sure, because it’s not like your three companions are counting on you to cover them or anything. And it’s not like your wife hasn’t become a monster that’ll suck you dry before going after your son or anything. Pardon me while I bash my head against the wall for a while…
Naturally, Eph’s blundering results in him being put in a chokehold by the Master. Just before the vamp can bite the good doctor, Abraham rushes in—only to be repulsed by some sort of sonic interference. Things sure ain’t looking good…
So it’s a damn good thing that Vasiliy doesn’t lose his cool and is there to unfurl his new toy. It totally does the trick: sending the Master scurrying for cover and charbroiling the rest of the vamps, saving Eph and Abraham in the process.
Of course Abraham doesn’t see it in that light. He can only focus on how close they were to achieving his lifelong goal. In a fit of rage, the old man hefts up a sledgehammer and bashes apart the giant coffin he once spent hours carving at gunpoint.
If nothing else, that had to feel satisfying.
Because what they find next sure isn’t: an immense cavern full of nesting vampires, way too many for the likes of their hardy quartet to handle. Somewhere in that tangle hides the Master and Abraham is apoplectic as Vasiliy and Eph drag him away. Going in would be nothing short of suicide—they have to regroup and make a new plan.
But with only two episodes left this season, time is definitely running out. For our heroes; for the city; and for humanity in general.
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.