‘The Strain’ Review: Del Toro Makes Reinventing Vampires Look Easy

'The Strain' Review: Del Toro Makes Reinventing Vampires Look Easy

FX series reimagines vampirism while paying homage to myths

“Twilight”-weary viewers decided a few years ago to let zombies replace vampires as our collective go-to undead. But vampires have already risen again.

This spring, Showtime's “Penny Dreadful” reconstituted Dracula myths into psycho-sexual family drama. And now FX's “The Strain,” as much a sci-fi show as a horror one, imagines vampirism spreading like bird flu.

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Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan reconfigured their witty idea for a vampire show into novels when their initial run at TV fell through. But thanks to “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead,” horror is hot again. It's too bad we didn't get to see “The Strain” several seasons ago, but then again, the years have given the creators of “The Strain” time to grow very confident in their world, and it shows.

In their pilot episode, airing Sunday, Del Toro and “Lost” veteran Carlton Cuse always have another trick to keep us watching. There's the phrase “dead plane,” the appearance of something that is initially called a casket and is later upgraded to a coffin, and the first appearance of one of the show's hideous creatures.

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The cast is uniformly good, especially Corey Stoll as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of a Center for Disease Control team called in to investigate that dead plane. David Bradley, a very bad guy on “Game of Thrones,” here gets to play a Van Helsing-style vampire hunter.

The greatest strength of “The Strain” is its ability to revamp vampires while paying homage to the myths about them that have accrued over decades. Gone are the austere bites to the neck from those gently metaphorical stories about sexual awakening: The monster of “The Strain” shoves its ghastly appendage straight down a victim's throat. Because Del Toro is involved, trust that it looks very cool.

We're in the hands of professionals who know exactly how to scare us, and make it look easy. But there are times when they seem a little too at ease.

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The tell-don't-show scene that introduces our hero — Ephraim — feels strictly expository, designed to familiarize us with his weird name, inform us of his workaholism and show how it's breaking up his family. We get more stakes-raising in his quick snarl-off with his wife's new boyfriend, but it all feels a little shoehorned.

The scene that introduces Abraham is a bit heavy-handed too: The show could have used one of its many chyrons to just say “Trust us on this guy's bad-assery.” The subtle hints the show drops about Abraham are better: Why is he so fond of buying silver?

Hmm.

With a trilogy of novels behind it, “The Strain” feels excited to spill its many good ideas. I'd hate for the storytelling shortcuts to accrue, and make it feel like just another show. On the other hand, maybe Del Toro and Cuse figured a couple of typical scenes would help us feel settled, given all their originality elsewhere.

Abraham is one of the many ways the show wittily combines the new world and the old. (Silver: Bullets!) So are the worms that transmit the strain.

Always a representation of decay, here they're a symbol of demented regeneration. It's just what “The Strain” does best.

“The Strain” premieres Sunday at 10/9c on FX.