Neal Justin: 'The Strain' is not for the squeamish

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)July 13, 2014 

Guillermo del Toro needs a hug. The acclaimed director has always had a dark side, but in such films as "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth," he showed off a playful imagination. Like a kindergartener diving into a jumbo box of magic markers, he brought a unpredictable blend of light and color to the darkest of worlds.

But del Toro seems to have lost his mirth, first with the heavy-handed feature film, "Pacific Rim," and now with "The Strain," the TV series he created with "The Town" author Chuck Hogan.

The drama, which premieres Sunday, opens on a grim note: Some sort of creature has killed nearly all the passengers on a plane - and the few survivors are suffering from intense headaches, bleeding gums, red eyes and a hunger for flesh.

Our hero doesn't look so hot, either.

Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of disease control in New York City, is a recovering alcoholic, absentee father and workaholic badly in need of a Caribbean vacation or, at the very least, a long nap.

Unfortunately, some sort of force that may or may not have ties to the Nazi party has other plans. It controls these nasty creatures who like to embed themselves in bodies and then suck the blood out of victims through a fat tentacle that shoots out of a person's throat.

It gets ickier.

I'm no prude, but I didn't really need to see a guy's head smashed in like it was a pumpkin dropped from a 45-floor building. I didn't need to see a possessed rock star licking blood off the floor like a cat dealing with spilled milk. And I certainly didn't need to see a little girl take a break from her evening bath to devour her daddy.

"A voice in my head is telling me to drink your blood," says one man to his wife in what passes as the series' most romantic dialogue.

Scenes like this make "The Exorcist" look like a Disney movie.

We're in an age of unprecedented violence on TV - which is absolutely fine as long as no one under the age of 15 is anywhere near the TV set and that there's some creative relief in the mix. "Fargo" worked because murder and mayhem were served with black humor and complicated, quirky characters. Same goes for "The Walking Dead."

That's not the case here, at least not in the first four episodes. There is one scene in which a coroner is attacked by corpses to the strains of "Sweet Caroline" that stands out, but for the most part, del Toro doesn't want anything to get in the way of a pure bloodbath.

Many die-hard fans of the horror genre may appreciate del Toro's relentless, no-nonsense approach. As for me, I'll be walking away slightly sick to the stomach.

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