Full disclaimer, I’ve read the Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan book series The Strain is based on, I enjoyed the trilogy a lot. The debut episode of the television series, not so much, but that’s what I’m judging; there will be no side-by-side comparisons.
The series opens with a plane making its descent into JFK airport, New York City, when something that looks like unfinished CGI smoke bursts from below deck. Shortly after, an air traffic controller and his boss, Bishop, discover the plane has landed and lays dormant on the tarmac. As the duo pay a visit to the aircraft the young controller describes the plane as a “building with wings”. Wait, what? Strike one in the terrible dialogue department.
Turns out all of the passengers are still on board so Chief Medical Officer of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention NYC, Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), is called out of family counselling time because, dammit, he’s a man of medicine not a father figure or husband (thus explaining the couples therapy). Also, upon seeing Stoll as Eph for the first time my Wig-Dar exploded as one of the shabbiest hair pieces on television made its debut.
Eph arrives at the airport and we meet his colleagues Nerdy Gadget Guy (Sean Astin) and Dr Sexual Tension (Mia Mastero). The hazmat suits are put on and they go on the plane to discover 206 dead passengers and four survivors in a very creepy scene crafted by del Toro on directing duties. More horrid dialogue is spoken and my ears begin to hurt but I persist because this is a del Toro joint. In the belly of the plane a gigantic wooden box with demonic imagery carved into the surface is discovered that screams “don’t open me”. Eph and his pals open the box, minus their hazmat suits, and discover a big pile of dirt and a hatch built into one of the doors that enables it to be opened from the inside. Quicker than you can say “immunisation” things get gruesome at the airport when Bishop discovers a pile of pulsating rags that transforms into a creature; hello big bad. The beast latches a tentacle like appendage to Bishops neck and sucks his blood, snaps his neck and then smashes his head Game of Thrones style. Del Toro’s gory hand is finally revealed and the creature elements of Night Zero appear to be its strongest suit.
A series of other characters are slowly introduced that includes a pawn shop owner, Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who has a history with what’s on the plane and has a rad sword built into a walking stick that’s itching for a little ‘slice and dice’. We also meet the wealthy Eldrich Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) who seems to orchestrating the arrival of the creature with the assistance from a guy who you know is bad news because he has sideways eyelids. Palmer’s side blinking goon hires a thug, Gus (Miguel Gomez), to pick up a van at the airport and bring it to Manhattan. Gus arrives at the airport and jumps into a white van with the demonic carving wooden box inside that screams “don’t dive this thing out of here”. Gus drives the van off the airport premises with the assistance of Nerdy Gadget Guy who seems to being blackmailed by Palmer’s secret organisation.
The body count begins to rise when a doctor carrying out autopsies on the dead passengers discovers that all the victims have distinct puncture wounds in their necks. The doctor also discovers that the organs of the victims as slowly changing and a bunch of strange worms burst from an extracted heart and begin to burrow into his hand. Finally, the passengers in various stages of autopsy start to walk around and surround the doctor for a feast while Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline plays on the radio. That song is now dead to me. More ultra-creepiness from del Toro, and again, it’s the creature feature elements of the show that work the best.
The weaker features lie with our hero, Eph, as he faces a press conference of angry family members of the passengers. With no signs of how to handle the media, let alone a normal human conversation, Eph tells the mob that their loved ones are dead and vows to find answers. A father in the crowd breaks through with a photo of his daughter and screeches some melodramatic babble before almost slapping the wig of Eph’s head. I think we’re meant to feel sorry for Eph in this moment but I was more worried about the toupee.
In one final moment of spookiness the melodramatic dad arrives home to discover his daughter tapping at the window looking a tad undead. Overwhelmed with emotion the father embraces his daughter and over his shoulder we get a good look at the little girl sideways blinking. The creepy kid was almost a plea from del Toro to overlook the flaws of Night Zero and return next week, it worked, but only just.
Night Zero wasn’t the best start to The Strain and it was lighter in tone than expected despite the pulpy gore showcased in the head smash sequence. The show reminds me a lot of a schlocky Roger Corman film, and that’s a good thing, but it’s far too shabby when removed from all the grotesque elements.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW