Portions of this review also appear on our coverage of the Collector's Edition.
I first came across 'The Strain' back in 2009 when Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan wrote the book, that this show is based on. I couldn't put it down. it was scary, very creepy, and tons of fun to read. The characters and the situations they get into were truly terrifying. Soon after the release of their first book, Guillermo and Hogan wrote two more sequel books that continued the story and characters, making an epic modern day vampire trilogy that has become one of my favorite horror books to read.
Soon after the trilogy was released studio execs realized what a killer TV series it would have made, and thus we have the first season of 'The Strain', which Guillermo Del Toro is a major part of. He has written and even directed certain episodes of the series so far with Carlton Cuse ('LOST'), serving as showrunner. Needless to say, there is a lot of talent behind this horror series about a vampire apocalypse. So how does the novel translate into a television series? Very well, despite a few hiccups here and there. The series is pretty spot on with the novel, as the book was written very much like a screenplay with a feature film or television series in mind, with quite a bit of detail.
However, being an hour-long TV show, there are a few slow moments here and there that drags the pace a bit. This is caused when most of the characters are walking and talking as if this were a police procedural series with a ton of instances where people are in suits in laboratories or police stations trying to figure things out. These scenes don't last long, but they come often, especially in this first season. It seems like they wanted to introduce almost everyone in this first season, and in order to give enough character development to everyone, they had to slow the pace down a but throughout. It's not a huge complaint, but if you're expecting horror and vampire attacks consistently, you won't find that here. As the season went on though, the action builds and becomes a bigger part of the show.
'The Strain' starts out in New York City when a jumbo jet airliner, carrying a ton of passengers, lands at the New York airport. Once on the ground, it comes to a complete stop on the runway with all of its lights going out, the windows shut, and no communication. Quickly, each terrorist and secret service agency is on the scene, trying to figure out what's going on. Among them is CDC investigator Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), who serves as the lead in this series. Goodweather believes there is some sort of virus or disease that came loose on the plane, causing the problem, but he soon realizes there is something much more evil on a gigantic scale that is happening, which turns out to be the vampire apocalypse.
You could think of 'The Strain' more or less as 'The Walking Dead', but with smart, fast vampires. To add to the suspense and drama of the story, we also follow Goodweather's on/off girlfriend Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), his ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) and his young son Zach (Ben Hyland) who are caught in the middle of this panic. There is also Goodweather's assistant Jim (Sean Astin) who has a dark secret that comes out in the open and causes problems. One of the coolest characters of the series is Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who is an old antique dealer who just might know what's happening in New York and how to deal with it. His background goes all the way back to WWII to the concentration camps as we see in some fantastic flashbacks.
Then of course you have the entire vampire side to deal with, which has several levels of a class system in their history. It's all very fascinating and might just come all together to fast for one short season. That being said, 'The Strain' is a lot of fun to watch, especially in the mid to late episodes when the speed and action really picks up. The vampires themselves look completely scary and are reminiscent of Guillermo's 'Blade II' film. The practical and CG effects are all impressive and the when the blood and guts fly on screen, it should satisfy the most seasoned gore hounds. 'The Strain: Season One' has a lot going for it, but has a tiny bit of trouble finding its pace and footing. Luckily, it finds itself mid-way through the season and never lets up. I expect Season Two to just blow us away.
'The Strain: Season 1' comes with a great 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This first season looks surprisingly good for how dark the series is, visually speaking. Most of the show takes place at night and underground in dark sewers or basements, with only a hint a light. That being said, 20th Century Fox has done a great job in keeping the detail sharp and the shadow detail almost perfect.
The detail is quite vivid throughout the season with excellent closeups that reveal individual hairs, gooey wounds, beads of sweat, and even tiny imperfections in the practical makeup and rubber suits of the vampires. Even in the lower lit scenes, the detail is quite sharp, which is impressive. Colors look very good here too, however there aren't a ton of bright and lively colors, with the exception in the day time exterior shots or in a brightly lit lab.
The colors are well saturated and balanced, although there are quite a few times when color grading appears in the form of an eerie blue or orange tint that has been added for effect, which tampers with the detail only slightly. Other than that, the black levels are deep and inky and the skin tones are very natural. There were no instances of any banding, aliasing, or video noise, leaving this video presentation with very good marks.
This release comes with a great lossless DTS-HD 5.1 MA mix. More often than not with this first season, there is more talking and dialogue than actual fighting vampires, however, the surrounds get a ton of use with the ambient sounds of the city and creepy noises coming from underneath the ground.
It's a well done sound design. Sound effects are robust, lively and loud throughout, and sound very realistic. There is great directionality and layered voices and effects, giving the soundscape some good depth. Dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow, with great subtitles with the ancient vampire language. The score always adds to the suspense without drowning out any dialogue or sound effects. The LFE is excellent and the dynamic range is wide with zero problems, leaving this audio presentation with great marks.
In the Beginning (HD, 15 Mins.) - Here is a decent sized EPK promo reel for the show where the cast and crew discuss the main story line and characters involved in season one.
A Novel Approach (HD, 10 Mins.) - This is an interview with Guillermo Del Toro discussing how he came up with the story and characters for the novel he wrote.
Setrakian's Lair (HD, 10 Mins.) - This is a fun extra that has David Bradley (Setrakian) giving us an intimate tour of his basement of rarities, weapons, antiques, and other surprises.
'The Strain: Season One' is an excellent story with solid execution, even though it takes a few episodes to find its feet. The vampires look amazing, the acting is very good, and the suspense and backstories are all top notch. If there is one vampire project you should be watching now, it's 'The Strain'. The video and audio presentations look and sound quite good with a few worthy extras. This set comes highly recommended.