Guillermo del Toro, co-creator of FX’s hit vampocalypse drama, “The Strain,” and showrunner Carlton Cuse recently revealed that season 2 will be darker than its initial outing last summer and that it may diverge more from the bestselling trilogy on which it’s based.
But one thing is abundantly clear from the first episode: This creature thriller will retain what I love most about it and preserve the heart of what makes it a great guilty pleasure — its mix of the completely absurd and the truly terrifying.
Guffaw if you will at an “ancient hungry being” that looks like Bat Boy in a gauze onesie and, later in the same hour, hold your breath as our heroes try desperately to get away from advancing hordes of vampires, with freaky strobe-light effects popping all around.
One is ridiculous, and the other is nightmarish. Such is the yin and yang of “The Strain,” a breakout success from last year that’s returned to give a much-needed jolt to our summer TV viewing. Admit it, you’re only hate-watching that pseudo-cerebral “True Detective” anyway.
“The Strain,” on the other hand, is a rip-roaring roller coaster ride during which you might laugh, scream, shudder or puke or any combination of those reactions. I’ll happily join you.
If you’re a newbie — and I suspect there will be plenty of first-time watchers this go around now that the word’s out beyond genre fans — don’t fret. You’ll catch up.
And here are a few bones to get you started: New York is going to hell in a hand basket, thanks to its lackluster response to the bloodsucking plague and a steady, well-funded disinformation campaign. Our motley band of heroes cornered but didn’t kill the king of all vamps, known as the Master. A sunbath, thought to be the ultimate Kryptonite, turned him into a crispy critter but failed to finish him.
Professor and Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian (the wonderful David Bradley) is hot on the trail of an ancient book that may hold the key to killing the Master and, by extension, his army of undead minions.
Drs. Ephraim Goodweather (a bewigged Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) are trying to cook up an infection for the infected. There’s no cure for the contagion that’s sweeping through the Big Apple, they figure, but there may be a way to exterminate those who’ve already been “turned.”
And yeah, the 7-foot-tall Master still looks like he’s wearing a bad Halloween mask with pointy elf ears. (I see that no one took my sound yet unsolicited advice to spend the down time between seasons reworking that costume.)
This episode, dubbed “BK, NY,” kicks off with a prologue shot by del Toro himself that fills in some mythology about the modern origins of the strigoi, the Romanian word for "vampire." It’s a scene setter — a ghost-story-within-a-flashback — and a way to introduce the 19th century Polish nobleman named Jusef Sardu, whose oversized body the Master now inhabits.
It also tells us that the young Setrakian was emotionally scarred for life by his grandmother’s horrifying bedtime stories. Bad Nana!
And it brings the funny in the form of an old-school vampire spreading the virus by upchucking about a zillion capillary worms directly into Sardu’s mouth. Sound disgusting? Is it ever! But I can’t be the only one who sees the similarity to a certain projectile vomiting scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.” So, that’s good for a laugh.
Back in NYC in the current day, the Scooby gang has battles to fight and buildings to fortify. Manly rat catcher Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) isn’t daunted by their aborted attempt to end the Master. And he doesn’t blame Setrakian for some critical miscalculations. He’s busy vampire-proofing his digs, now the group’s new headquarters, and skinny-dipping with hacker chick Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas). Pasty bum! Can’t swim! I still love you, Fet.
Eph, who’s much cheekier and a lot more fun now that he’s hitting the bottle again, realizes he’s a terrible vampire hunter and vows to attack the problem from a medical perspective. Nora, shedding last season’s hysterics and picking up firepower, helps him clear out a pathology lab — those damn strigoi are everywhere — so they can do science.
Now if they just had a couple of guinea pigs…
Setrakian, retracing his steps and trying to finish what he started with the Master, instead finds himself temporarily captured by the vigilante vamps. They want to work with him to take down the Master, and they’ve already enlisted Harlem thug Gus (Miguel Gomez) in the effort.
As viewers, we don’t know much about this crew, and del Toro and Cuse have been cagey and vague in recent interviews. (The characters are key figures in “The Strain” novels, which del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan.) But we do learn that the shot-callers are the Bat Boy-esque threesome dubbed the Ancients, who “sleep” in an underground lair and twitch like dreaming house pets.
But that’s preferable to them waking up and feeding on some naked dude, which they do in front of Setrakian and Gus. It ain’t pretty. So much screaming, so many lashes with those anaconda-like stingers. Warily, Setrakian makes an informal alliance because he thinks the Ancients can help him get his paws on the tome called the Occido Lumen. (Search out the animated short film, recently released as a promo tool for the show, for more info on this fictional document.)
Because there needs to be at least one monster bashing/beheading/skewering scene per hour, Setrakian, Fet, Eph and Nora go in search of the octogenarian’s storage locker of strigoi research and unstable explosives. They find it, along with a bunch of hungry bloodsuckers and couple of refugees who stored themselves rather than face the undead scourge. They’re not infected … until they are. Well, there’s test subject 1 and 2, docs.
The Master, bowed but not broken and still intent on world domination, is making plans to hop into a noncharred body and directing his henchman Thomas Eichhorst (uber-villain and former Nazi SS guard played by the first-rate Richard Sammel) to “bring me the children.” That order turns out to be every bit as ominous as it sounds. Hint: school for the blind.
The rich and reinvigorated Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is all about making himself look like a city savior in this time of crisis, shaking hands with politicians and throwing money at the problem through his aptly named Stoneheart Group.
But he’s simultaneously laying the foundation for the Master’s total takeover, which somehow involves buying an industrial property in the Bronx that can “carry large amounts of liquid waste.” All together now: Uh oh.
The Master has yet another trick up his sleeve — one that mirrors the storyline of the book — using Eph’s ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) to track the Scooby gang and potentially crush their human resistance movement. She’s a vampire now and, as the afflicted are wont to do, she’s single-mindedly trying to root out and feed on her “dear ones.” That includes her son, Zach. (Different kid actor this season, same bratty character.)
To step up her search, the Master transforms a busload of blind kids into undead helpers called “the feelers.” With their special powers, how long before they locate the good guys? We have 12 more episodes to find out.