Guillermo del Toro has been a busy man since nabbing an Oscar nod for his Spanish-language art-house fantasy Pan's Labyrinth in 2007. He helmed a summertime crowd-pleaser, Hellboy II, produced more than five movies, and began writing the screenplays for his next directorial effort, a two-part adaptation of The Hobbit. Now the Mexican auteur has coauthored The Strain, a sci-fi vampire opus that's a cross between The Hot Zone and 'Salem's Lot. It's hard to believe he found time for such an ambitious project and after reading the book, it seems clear he didn't.
The Strain was co-written by Chuck Hogan, whose résumé is largely composed of mass-market thrillers. This newest credit seems to recycle ideas from del Toro's 2002 vampire movie Blade II and Hogan's 1998 novel The Blood Artists, whose freaky scenario has egghead heroes scrambling to hunt down a plague carrier. In The Strain, a plane lands in New York, nearly all passengers dead, victims of a mysterious contagion. Biohazard experts bust their brains for a scientific solution despite evidence to the contrary: blood-drained victims, neck abrasions, a coffin filled with dirt, etc. They are set straight by an aged Holocaust survivor who's spent his life hunting an ancient vampire that preyed upon the infirm at his concentration camp. But as they set out to stop the übervamp from turning Manhattanites into either food or foot soldiers in his grand war on humanity, you realize The Strain far from wrapping up is but the first chapter in a trilogy. There's more? Really?
The Strain is a competently constructed piece of entertainment, and I'll give it bonus points for shaking up some vampire clichés. No fangs here; instead, these creatures use oh, why spoil one of the book's few surprises? What's missing in The Strain is the idiosyncratic artistry and the alchemical fusion of high and low pop that made Pan's Labyrinth so special. The novel could have used a little less Hogan and little more del Toro. C