The Strain (2009)

Posted: November 25, 2010 in 3 stars, Reviews, The Strain
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Reading The Strain is weirdly like reading an alternate-universe version of Blade II, sort of like Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is an AU of Card Captor Sakura.  So many of the same elements are there that in a way it’s impossible for the book to surprise if you’ve seen the movie:  vampirism as virus; the physical description of the vampires; the stingers on the tongues; the way they congregate underground like rats; even the UV hand grenades and the World Health Organization have cameos.  So it’s fortunate for the book, and for us, that Blade II was, hands-down, the best movie of the series.

The Strain is the first in a trilogy, the basic plot of which is this: a European vampire, one of seven “original” vampires in the vaguely Anne Rice-ean sense, comes to America on a 777, brought over by Douchebag Rich Guy;  Douchebag Rich Guy, of course, wants to live forever and has apparently never seen any of the 1023980983 horror movies on the theme of “Sucking up to powerful supernatural creatures because you want to live forever is only going to end in tears, honest to god.”  The plane lands on the runway at JFK and promptly goes dark, triggering some of the best and most tightly suspenseful scenes in the book as all sorts of government security agencies respond to what initially appears to be some sort of terrorist attack.  It’s like a 20th-century, high-tech re-envisioning of the landing of the Demeter at Whitby.

Enter the main characters: Ephraim Goodweather, CDC; his colorless girlfriend and co-worker Nora, who may be given things to do in subsequent books but is deadweight in this one; his son Zack; and Abraham (no, really; yeah, I know) Setrakian, Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter.  Ephraim is hard to convince on the whole vampire front, but it doesn’t take more than a handful of reanimated corpses trying to eat him and his loved ones before he comes around.

The book has two authors – Guillermo del Toro, director of the aforementioned Blade II, and Chuck Hogan – and it shows.  Del Toro as a filmmaker has a wonderful eye for the visual composition of a scene, a thing rarer among filmmakers than one might expect; Del Toro as a writer has a distinctly cinematic style.  I have no way of knowing who wrote what prose, but the quality is variable.  The first scenes, as mentioned, are stunning – tight-wound and brilliantly visual, superbly blocked and paced.  Unfortunately, the writing falls down in the last few chapters; it becomes clunky and weirdly mannered, as if it were written by someone who has read a lot of skilled writing and a lot of really atrocious writing without really understanding the former or having enough skill himself to avoid picking up bad habits from the latter.  The Strain would have been good for four stars if it had gone on as it started.

And if it had had a better villain, honestly.  The Big Bad here is a shadowy archetype, nowhere near as effective or charismatic as B2‘s Nomak.  He’s more reminiscent of the villain in The Keep, less a personality than a vague embodiment of OMGEVOL. It’s a shame, because of the humans, even the minor characters are immediately engaging and fully fleshed out.

So what’s the verdict? Three stars.  If whoever wrote the first scenes writes the rest of the books, that rating might go up; either way, though, I’m interested enough to continue the series.


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