The problem with horror, as with most film and TV genre templates, is that because everything’s been done already, writers get nervous and throw in too many extraneous ideas, as if in desperation to find something jaded fans might latch onto.
That’s the biggest mistake co-creators Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Chuck Hogan make with “The Strain,” premiering Sunday on FX, but, alas, it’s not the only one.
The show, based on the novel by the two, isn’t great but it isn’t entirely awful either. “The Strain” is about a workaholic investigator for the Centers for Disease Control named Ephraim Goodweather, played with convincing earnestness by Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”). The character’s name is absurdly portentous, like something appropriated from a Cotton Mather chapbook, but fortunately, his friends call him Eph, like the letter “F.”
Anyway, Eph and his colleague Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro, “The Motorcycle Diaries”) are called in when an airliner lands in New York and no one gets off. In fact, there’s no indication of life aboard the plane at all. Inside, Eph and Nora find that except for four people, every passenger and crew member is dead, and there’s no indication of the cause except for some icky stuff that shows up under black light. For anyone’s who’s ever flown commercial, that part probably isn’t surprising.
At this point, Hogan (author of the novel “The Town”) and showrunner Carlton Cuse (“Bates Motel”), the designated writers of the series, start overstuffing the script. First, we have to get to know how difficult Eph’s life is. Right now he’s battling ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown, “Bitten”) for shared custody of their son, Zack (Ben Hyland, “Marley and Me”). Eph loves his kid and still loves his wife, an affair with Nora notwithstanding, but his job is demanding and he gives in to those demands because if he doesn’t get to the bottom of these mysterious cases, who will?
Meanwhile, there’s a strange old man named Abraham Sethrakian (David Bradley) who runs a curio shop, keeps a human heart in a glorified pickle jar in his back room and wields an ornate walking stick that serves as a scabbard for a sword.
Sethrakian knows what killed the people on the plane and it’s connected to a huge box of dirt found in the cargo hold. He warns Eph and the authorities in vain not to let the box be transported across the river and into New York and insists that the only way to stop whatever killed the people on the plane is to burn the bodies.
But wait … there’s more. We also have World War II Nazis who don’t seem to age, Washington bureaucrats who predictably reject the suggestion that the entire port of New York needs to be shut down to contain “The Strain,” and a wealthy old coot on the point of death who is willing to make a Faustian bargain to stay alive.
While this plot population explosion may have worked in the novel, it doesn’t all transfer well to the series.
The actual horror is that “The Strain,” whatever it is, manifests itself as worms crawling through your body devouring organs, turning the human hosts into what the SyFy Channel would call vamp-bies or zomb-ires, walking dead who need human flesh and blood to sustain themselves. They obtain their grub via a hideous giant worm that looks like a turkey neck and juts out of the zom-bires’ mouths.
There’s no scripted humor in the show, but a few unintentional guffaws that would easily qualify “The Strain” for “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” The “plop” when genitals fall into a toilet bowl is especially memorable, and I would love to hear Crow T. Robot on that jabbing turkey neck. I can guess what a therapist might say about it, especially if he or she were a Freudian.
Although most of the script is ham-fisted, props to the writers for at least allowing the central story line to unfold naturalistically. That may be because it would be impossible to jam all the exposition into Sunday’s premiere, but still, the show does adequately build suspense.
So many of the actors are obviously accomplished that it’s sad to see them struggling with a so-so script and comic book character development. Bradley, Walder Frey on “Game of Thrones,” manages to emerge from the show with his dignity unscathed as he imbues the character of Abraham with dimension and credibility not provided by the script.
Stoll tries to do the same thing with Eph, mostly overcoming cliche-ridden horror-movie-hero character development.
Richard Samuel (“Inglorious Basterds”) plays the seemingly immortal Nazi Thomas Eichhorst with frigid perfection, but Jonathan Hyde (“Jumanji”) makes the maniacal billionaire about as three-dimensional as Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.” The female actors don’t even seem to be trying to overcome the bland dialogue.
“The Strain” is watchable, but honestly, that isn’t good enough when you’re talking Guillermo del Toro and FX. In both cases, we expect more. We do get “more” in one regard – more plot strings than anyone needs – but not enough precision, quality of writing and performances, and, mostly, inspired directorial vision.