|Harper Collins Paperbacks|
the guardian Fri 12 June 2009
Flight 753 from Berlin lands without a hitch at JFK International Airport, taxis towards the terminal and then abruptly shuts down. The emergency services are mobilised and the incoming jets are hastily rerouted, while Flight 753 simply sits out there on the tarmac like some beached leviathan. Inside, at first glance, the crew-members and passengers appear all to be dead in their seats.
The scene provides an appropriately cinematic curtain-raiser for The Strain, a modern-day vampire yarn cowritten by the Mexican film director Guillermo Del Toro with author Chuck Hogan. Reputedly the first instalment of a trilogy, it is the sort of fast-paced, high-concept outing that seems tailor-made for either a big-screen adaptation or - as Hogan has enthused - "a long-form, cable-type TV series". And yet at the same time this opening salvo also looks to the past; doffing its cap to an illustrious ancestor. For what is Flight 753 from Berlin if not a winged update of the Demeter, the stricken Russian schooner that brought Dracula to Whitby?
This is one of Del Toro's endearing qualities: he wears his influences with a ready abandon. In a directing career that straddles exotic Spanish-language chillers such as Pan's Labyrinth and Hollywood spectaculars such as Blade 2 and the Hellboy films, he has referenced everything from Goya to Arthur Rackham, fairy-tales to horror comics, plundering a wealth of antique sources and lavishing them with a fresh lick of paint. The Strain, a pulpy, apocalyptic fable that uses Bram Stoker as its springboard, is no exception.
Exploring the underbelly of the passenger jet, biohazard expert Ephraim Goodweather discovers a refrigerator-sized ebony box, empty except for acoating of thick black loam. Whatever it contained has now made good its escape, and soon afterwards the plane's inhabitants go awol too. Four survivors - ailing and initially taken for dead - break out of quarantine and run amok. Across town, corpses vanish en masse from the local morgue. They are later seen shuffling through the streets of Manhattan, naked and ruined and flaunting recent autopsy scars. All of them, it transpires, are heading home to feed.
As the city toils to contain a pandemic, Del Toro and Hogan wheel in their Van Helsing figure. Abraham Setrakian is an elderly Romanian Jew who now earns his crust as a pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem. Setrakian has first-hand knowledge of these creatures, having once tussled with "the dark thing" Jusef Sardu in the death camp of Treblinka. Where the flummoxed authorities are still regarding the infected as hapless victims, the pawnbroker trumpets a more alarming diagnosis. "Think more along the lines of a man with a black cape," he explains. "Fangs. Funny accent. Now take away the cape and the fangs. The funny accent. Take away everything funny about it."
It is at this point that The Strain makes a break from Stoker's model. These vampires are not the silky Transylvanian aristocrats of yore. Nor, for that matter, are they the troubled, emo-style heart-throbs featured in the novels of Stephenie Meyer or the film of Let the Right One In. Instead, they are mindless, undead leeches, more akin to the zombies from a George Romero movie.
Del Toro sketched The Strain in the form of a 12-page outline which he then turned over to Hogan, creator of the thrillers Prince of Thieves and The Killing Moon. When one considers that the bulk of the book was written while the director was shooting Hellboy 2, it seems safe to assume that most of the heavy lifting was performed by his co-author. One might even think of Del Toro as the literary equivalent of an executive producer; on hand to dream up the concept and sign it off at the end.
Undeniably the director makes his presence felt in a tale that blends genre thrills with eccentric detours into folklore and mordant comedy (an infected Marilyn Mansonesque singer removes his make-up and black contact lens only to discover that his disguise has become a reality). But at times one detects his absence here as well. Emboldened by the success of his Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro has spent the past few years clamouring for a revolution in movie narrative and predicting the imminent demise of the traditional three-act story structure. Pointing to videogames as an agent of change, he prophesies an eventual melding of films, TV, games and print into what he describes as a long-form "public story engine"; a kind of democratic folk-tale in part dictated by the audience itself.
So where does The Strain fit with this bold vision of the future? What we have here is surely the epitome of established, mass-culture storytelling. Del Toro's vampire saga is diverting and never less than expertly crafted. But it is also tightly formatted and ultimately disposable - a tasty piece of literary junk-food, spiced with reheated action set-pieces and great reams of expository dialogue. I'm guessing that some crucial element was perhaps mislaid in transit; in that shadowy period between conception and delivery. Del Toro delivered the red meat to the kitchen. Hogan came out with a hamburger.