Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) brings his vivid and visionary style to television with The Strain (Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX).
Based on a fiction trilogy del Toro wrote with novelist Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves), The Strain is an extra-hot vampire potboiler, served up with the help of executive producer Carlton Cuse (Lost).
The 13-episode series hits the ground fleeing. A passenger jet from Berlin is making an uneventful final approach to New York's JFK airport. But when it lands, all the lights are off, the window shades are all pulled down, and there is no sign of movement on the plane.
Time to scramble the Canary project, a rapid-response team from the Centers for Disease Control headed by Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll, who played the corrupt Philadelphia congressman on House of Cards).
Stoll and his team (Mia Maestro and Sean Astin) cannot begin to puzzle out what happened to the 210 passengers on board, or what was in that oversize carved sarcophagus in the cargo hold.
But a plot summary doesn't begin to do justice to The Strain, an intriguing blend of medical mystery and monster thriller with a rich mythology, playing out on a high-gloss cinematic canvas.
A crowded one at that, because there are a number of fascinating characters in the mix. There's a strange old Armenian concentration-camp survivor (David Bradley, whom you may remember as Hogwarts' janitor Argus Filch or as the perfidious Walder Frey on Game of Thrones). A pawnshop owner in East Harlem, he seems to know a great deal more about what just landed at JFK than any of the authorities. "Destroy the coffin," he ominously warns the CDC officials. "Do not allow it to cross the river" into Manhattan. Cue the howling wolves.
There's a desperate billionaire (The Tailor of Panama's Jonathan Hyde) who is financing this evil cabal. And a charismatic exterminator (Lost's Kevin Durand) for New York City's Health Control Department. And a cynical and dissolute rock star (Jack Kesy), one of only four passengers who walked off the flight from Berlin.
Once we get down to the nitty-gritty of suctioning blood, the series loses a little of its unique aura. When you've seen one vampire . . . . That's not a knock, by the way, on Robert Maillet, the former professional wrestler who plays the giant Nosferatu creature that becomes the story's principal villain.
The Strain simply gets a little less exceptional as it grows steadily more graphic. The billboards for the series, which showed in extreme close-up a worm dangling from a human eye, created a real backlash when they were installed in Los Angeles.
It's images like that - along with graphic violence, profanity, and adult content - that have earned The Strain a hard TV-MA rating. Included in there is a glimpse of full frontal nudity unlike any you've ever seen.
But don't miss the party just because the music gets too loud. Campy, creepy, and convincing, The Strain is oddly riveting, with a gleeful, pulpy momentum propelling the plot.
Premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on FX
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