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'The Strain' review: Little vampires with big appetites

From left, Sean Astin as Jim Kent, Mia

From left, Sean Astin as Jim Kent, Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez and Cory Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather in FX's "The Strain." Credit: MCT

THE SHOW "The Strain"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT On a dark and not quite stormy night, a passenger jet from Germany lands at JFK. Everyone, or almost everyone, on board is dead. But why? Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) -- head of the Centers for Disease Control's New York-based "Canary Team" -- gets the call, and along with Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), arrives on a scene of chaos and mystery. Something was in the cargo hold of that plane, but it's not there now.

Meanwhile, professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), a Holocaust survivor who runs a pawnshop in the city, rushes to the airport. He knows what has happened, and instructs "Eph" to destroy all the bodies -- oh, and kill the survivors, too. The series is based on the 2009 book of the same name, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

MY SAY Del Toro actually pitched this to Fox back in 2006 but -- as he has since explained -- an executive there asked if he could turn it into a sitcom instead. Alas, posterity has not preserved del Toro's no doubt emphatically visceral response. He did ask for his treatment back, however.

"The Strain" is not a comedy -- remotely -- but a particularly grim and gruesome rewrite of vampire physiology, in which fangs play no part, but are replaced by a proboscis, which severs the victim's carotid artery. Tiny, sentient and ravenous worms are implanted into the host, while blood is sucked out. Del Toro and Hogan's richly morbid imaginations have also supplied to this a veneer of symbolism and metaphor, while pulling elements from human past (the Holocaust) and present (9/11). Evil is out there -- what are you going to do about it? Or what can you do about it?

And in a rather novel twist here, "The Strain" adds another choice element: that the need for human love will lead to our eradication. Or maybe it won't. We have at least 13 weeks to see how "Eph" will subvert this strain of vampirism. (FX has said this closed-ended series will cover the three novels of the del Toro/Hogan trilogy and could last up to 65 episodes, depending on the audience response.)

But this isn't "The Walking Dead" either. The horror is carefully and strategically placed; one mustn't have too much of a good thing, after all.

For del Toro, and maybe viewers, the challenge is the clock. This vampire "strain" moves fast, but del Toro has said he wants a character-driven drama here. How to do that? Simple: Slow down the clock. Add characters. (The large cast, which includes Richard Sammel, Sean Astin and Kevin Durand, is excellent.) Explore their back stories. Then, add other horror elements. Rats will do nicely.

So settle in. You will be grossed out.

BOTTOM LINE Satisfying -- but you might never eat spaghetti again.


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