Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan managed to breathe a bit of new life into the Vampire genre a few years back with a series of horror novels turned into this FX television series which lasted four seasons. Their fresh, genre-bending take on bloodsuckers moves fast while throwing a few deep thoughts your way, with fun three-dimensional characters, suspense, and enough CGI gore to please indiscriminate Fangoria fans.
This DVD box-set breathes slightly less life into the gods of commerce, as it simply repackages the four seasons as previously released, while the show is also widely available for streaming. The three-hours worth of extras included span the four, three or four-disk sets, amounting to about 10-minutes worth of EPK-type extras per disk, informative, but not exhaustive. But if you're hankering to bite into a fantastic, fun horror series at your leisure, without ever worrying that the content will disappear from your favorite streaming service's servers, and you don't have any of the previous stand-alone season sets, then this release is the way to go, even if it's not in high-definition.
When a plane with mysterious cargo lands in New York, it's discovered that everyone on-board is dead, thought to be brought down by a highly contagious virus. That is, except for a handful of individuals who revive and are quickly put into quarantine. Public and political pressure mean that soon, the revived are let out into the public, where they soon help unleash a deadly virus that transforms the infected into inhuman, blood-sucking monsters. Cue up what then amounts to something like an exceedingly entertaining 36-hour horror movie spread out over four seasons and 46 episodes, full of terror, gore, action, humor, social commentary and more. A fantastic ensemble cast shoulders the load, allowing The Strain to follow several strands of plot soap-opera-style. The tone is both light and deep, deadly serious but never self-serious, with complex characterizations that seem to fly in the face of our current 'us versus them' mentality, even if the fulcrum of the plot is literally 'us versus them'.
A core of survivors band together to fight the virus, including disgraced CDC honcho Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), NYC exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), hacker Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas), and petty thief Gus Elizalde (Miguel Gomez). Mysterious billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) aligns with sicko Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel) to muck things up, while The Master (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes) hopes to take over the world. It's certainly substantive enough a concept to span four seasons of bloody fun, but it's the trips down the individual paths of each character that make viewing a rich experience.
It might be fair to think of The Strain as a cross between Dawn of the Dead and General Hospital. In concept, it's a portrait of a society on the brink of collapse; an incomprehensible enemy is hard to combat because it's hard to believe, so some people struggle to maintain normalcy, while others fight and die. Everything is carried forward by a group of disparate characters experiencing their own story-lines, that weave together to form a whole, while providing multiple cliff-hangers each episode to keep viewers coming back. The best part being the fact that each sub-plot is just as engaging as the others, and the overall arc in general, even as those subplots sometimes span back decades into the past. It's not a case of ignoring Gus' fight to earn respect as an ex-criminal, for example, just so viewers can hurry back to the main plot. Gus' story is as integral and interesting as everything else.
Sharp writing manages also to be both topical and universal, with sociopolitical commentary rising naturally from events. When civic leaders finally realize there's a very serious issue to be dealt with, the approach taken subtly reflects current issues such as immigration, nationalism and protectionist policies. In fact some of the ideas bandied about in The Strain seem to have prefigured events that were yet to happen when the series originally aired. But don't expect to be browbeaten by a political agenda, as The Strain deftly succeeds in keeping things fun above all else.
And how do you keep a show like this fun? By employing a number of top-notch actors who are nonetheless mostly unknowns, which lets their great performances shine through without excess baggage. Corey Stoll assays his character's alcoholism in a way that's challenging, realistic, ambiguous, and never moralizing. He's an ass who's trying hard to be good. David Bradley makes Setrakian into one of the most awesome old heroes you'll find in televised horror; crusty, tough, and sympathetic. He's a true delight whenever he's on screen. Ephraim Goodweather's ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) is a complex character to say the least, and Brown is more than up-to-the-task of bringing her multifaceted personality to life. Kevin Durand, as Fet the exterminator, is rabbity, strong, lovable and sly. Durand is a real find, and should be a big star. The list goes on. There isn't a weak performance in the bunch, there are only degrees of delight.
But probably viewers come to The Strain because they're looking for horror. (A stretch, I know.) In this realm, there's no disappointment either. The vampirism concept is so mutated that it never feels tired, and even though gore and special effects are universally of the computer-generated variety, and almost always in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, there is enough horrific violence to satisfy any sick viewer. There are loads of vampire heads cut off in each episode, but the blood is white, so the action can be more explicit than if it were showing real 'people' getting chopped up. And though it's an episodic TV series, The Strain is actually pretty scary, too, with the vampire nests, where the creatures sleep during the day, echoing the tension found in I Am Legend, (plus, there are numerous other call-outs to other horror movies) meanwhile other horrific elements, such as the 'spider kids', remain potent, nasty, and unique in their own right. If you're looking for the things a good horror fan wants, you won't be disappointed.
This complete series collection encapsulates all four DVD season sets into one box, with no changes other than slightly different packaging. If you own any of the stand-alone season sets, you'll need to do a cost analysis to decide whether this collection is the way to go. On the whole, The Strain is first-rate, addictive horror and fun, full of engaging characters portrayed with consummate skill. Bloodthirsty, intellectually engaging, frightening, disgusting, and emotionally involving, and with enough jaw-dropping moments to satisfy even the most jaded, the series should be seen by anyone who self-identifies as a horror fan. While the content is a must-have, the collection itself doesn't break any new ground in terms of physical media a viewer might want to own, so on balance, this collection is Highly Recommended.