Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vampires revamped

The Strain hammers a stake into brooding-boyfriend types and turns them into monsters again

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The Strain, the new vampire series on FX Canada, is a bit like the swoopy wig of its main character, Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (played by the usually bald Corey Stoll). Eph's hairpiece, which has become a media talking point, is fake, funny, bizarre. It's also curiously compelling. I can't take my eyes off that crazy hair -- or the fabulously repulsive, ridiculous vampire action swirling around it.

Since The Strain's July debut, Guillermo del Toro (along with co-creators Chuck Hogan and Carlton Cuse) has been getting credit for revamping vamps. Forget those defanged existential brooders who've been moping around the pop-culture universe. Del Toro, an acclaimed film director and professional fanboy, has made vampires into monsters again. The Strain's lead leech is less of a romantic Byronic antihero and more of a fast-moving three-metre tapeworm.

These aren't improbably chaste high-school-boyfriend vampires. They aren't guilt-ridden "vegan" vampires trying to subsist on synthetic blood. They aren't exquisitely bored esthetes or decadent aristocrats or club-kid Goths. And they aren't over-thought archetypes who are so busy being metaphorical that they've forgotten how to be scary. Del Toro's vampires are giant mindless parasites, spread by worms that wiggle into your orifices and under your skin. (It's no surprise that billboards advertising the show had to be removed because they were frightening children.)

The series' vampire mythology is blood-soaked and biological. Above all, it's yucky, at times comically so. That's the other fresh thing about The Strain. Del Toro's assault on "classy" vampires comes with an equally brash challenge to classy television. The Strain may air on Sunday night, a viewing slot often reserved for prestige dramas and posh period pieces, but it's cheerfully cheesy and gratuitously gross. When critics talk about the show, they often end up referencing the drive-in theatres, midnight movies, cult classics and B-grade creature features of their childhoods. This is unrepentant popcorn TV. It's not necessarily good, but it is fun.

Known for alternating between independent, ambitious Spanish-language films like The Devil's Backbone and Hollywood genre pics like Blade II, del Toro is able to combine high intensity with goofy hokum. He's a master of grotesquerie, creating standalone scenes that tread the queasy line between disgust and laughter. Del Toro's unerring instinct for how closely those two reactions are related can be seen in one of the show's first big horror set-pieces, which involves some hot worm-on-coroner action along with an ironically deployed Neil Diamond song. The final effect is hilariously icky.

The body-horror in The Strain is over-the-top oogy. What Eph half-admiringly calls the "brand-new flesh" created when a vampire parasite invades a human host is unsexy in the most basic sense: One of the first symptoms is the shedding of now-extraneous anatomical features, meaning that the genitals just drop right off. The third episode's squishiest moment involves the unforgettable sound of a newbie vampire's defunct penis plopping into a toilet.

Sex is right off the table, then, and we're left with feeding and excreting. (Oh, we knew that "ammonia spray" mentioned in the opening sequence was going to come up again.) The Strain is powered by primal repugnance for filth and stink and pests and vermin. One of our heroes might be a venerable vampire hunter with an antique silver sword, but another is a New York City exterminator who just happens to love his work.

The Strain also chomps down on high-low TV tropes. Del Toro really enjoys his cliches, deliberately offering up flat characters and hammy dialogue.

Main character Eph is like a cartoon version of HBO and AMC's "difficult men." He's driven and self-destructive, a recovering alcoholic and non-recovering workaholic in a "complicated" relationship with his son, his soon-to-be ex-wife, and her new beta-male boyfriend.

wIn the show's weakest subplot, the global apocalypse keeps getting interrupted so Eph can go to custody hearings. Stoll embraces all this silliness with admirable, Shatner-like earnestness.

The supporting characters are even more two-dimensional. There's the Desiccated Plutocrat, who runs a corporation that's actually called the Stoneheart Group (just in case you were wondering whether a vast, shadowy global organization would be evil or not). There's the Cultivated Nazi, the Sexy Hacker Chick, the Ass-Covering Bureaucrat, and the Gangsta With a Code.

There's probably some meaning in the show's glorious mess of a storyline, though del Toro's maximalist tendencies make it hard to determine what, exactly, that might be. Constructing an obsessively detailed but weirdly undisciplined vampire cosmos, del Toro throws out subtexts all over the place -- pandemics, xenophobia, information technology, the Holocaust, 9/11, conspiratorial corporate elites. Who knows where it's all going?

Near the end of the fourth episode, the fearless vampire hunter discusses the necessity of beheading undead creatures and burning their bodies, noting rather dryly: "It's not for everyone." The same could be said for this pulpy, wormy, wildly uneven show. The Strain is not for everyone, but for horror fans with strong stomachs, there's a lot to devour.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 D12

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