The catalyst for the beginning of the 13-part FX series The Strain is the arrival of a mysterious airplane, but co-executive producer Carlton Cuse, whose hit series Lost also involved a mystery about a plane, says that this was purely coincidental.
“I wasn’t involved in the creation of that idea,” Cuse laughed during a recent interview, “but I think it’s a really good idea.”
He’s right about that; the opening sequence of a plane somehow landing in New York City — with all of its passengers and crew seemingly dead — is a gripping, creepily atmospheric scenario, written and directed by co-executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) and exemplifying his unique visual style.
“He set the visual style for the other directors,” Cuse said. “I’ve been steering the ship of the series, and Guillermo’s remained involved really in the monster creation, visual effects. The visual look of the show is something that he’s very much responsible for.” (That visual style was recently evidenced on some L.A. billboards that freaked people out so much they were taken down.)
Del Toro is also responsible for some of the narrative used in The Strain, as it is based upon the vampire novel trilogy cowritten by del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Cuse did tell us, though, that the series is “kind of a richer, more embellished version of the story. … I think anyone who’s read the books will find the series really engaging and not exactly the same as the books, but certainly the basic spine is somewhat similar.”
That spine of the plot, following the landing of the plane, involves an investigation into just what killed the people (or most of them, at least; it turns out four of them “survived” for an apparently sinister purpose). Assuming some kind of plague, the CDC is called in, led by Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro). The plague assumption is kind of correct; it’s just that whatever has landed in New York is far deadlier, and more ancient, than any diseases this team has faced in the past — a strain of vampirism.
“There’s this really empirical approach to the investigation of this outbreak of vampirism,” Cuse said, “but on the other hand, the vampirism is rooted in this really sort of old mythology that’s almost like a fairy tale. So there’s this interesting amalgam of the new and the old.”
While many of the “new” types of investigators remain baffled by what they are finding, there is one practitioner of the “old” who knows exactly what is happening, as he has faced it before. As with most horror tales, he is not believed at the outset, and not before a mysterious, coffin-like object that was aboard the plane disappears. That person is Professor Abraham Setrakian, played impressively by David Bradley (Harry Potter movies, Game of Thrones).
“He becomes our guide into this world,” said Cuse of Setrakian. “He’s both the mentor and the sort of experienced warrior.”
Fans of Dracula may find Setrakian seeming to serve as a sort of Van Helsing of The Strain, and it’s easy to see in instances like this where the story may borrow, even subconsciously, elements from classic vampire works, even as it revamps them. That is probably no surprise coming from a student of horror like del Toro.
“Guillermo’s an avid — I would dare say sort of fanatical — fan of horror and fantasy, and has virtual encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. As writers and storytellers, we’re deeply influenced by the stories that moved us, scared us, fascinated us. I think innately those sort of things come into play when you’re telling your own story. There are things that are referential, although I wouldn’t say we’re really trying to be intentionally referential.”
One element of The Strain that does not appear to have much precedent is the physical appearance of the primary vampire. We see a bit of it in the pilot, and it truly is a horrific creation, up there with some of del Toro’s most impressive designs — an ancient beast with a brain and a plan, and almost ghostlike in its ability to move around (and quite gorily effective in killing its victims, attacking them with a frightening rage).
“Guillermo is really as good as it gets with creature creation,” Cuse agreed. “That, to me, is kind of the key to making a story in this genre work — you have to really believe the creatures and find them interesting.”
Interesting it is, and by the end of the first episode, we — and some of the characters — begin to realize just how much more insidious this situation is than a regular plague. It is something purposely brought in by dark forces whom we meet a little in the pilot, and it’s eventually something that threatens the entire city.
“The stakes are huge,” assured Cuse, “and in the case of the first season, it’s almost like the fate of New York City is hanging in the balance.”
And about future seasons?
“We are planning on a show that will last, at the most, five seasons,” Cuse told us. “It’s a story with a beginning, a middle, an end. … It’s a little early in the life of the show to promise exactly how many episodes are downstream, but it is not our plan to do more than five seasons. It’s a story that’s leading to a very specific endpoint.”
However long The Strain runs, getting to that endpoint looks, so far, like it’s going to be a very fun ride for horror fans.
The Strain airs Sundays at 10pm ET/PT on FX beginning July 13.