Will ‘The Strain’ Be a Return to Form for Guillermo del Toro?

source: FX

source: FX

Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming show The Strain, based on his trilogy of novels, is already a curious monster, and it doesn’t air until July. It looks like a return to form for del Toro, who wasted five years of his life working on The Hobbit and then the awful Pacific Rim, and a regression to his early Hollywood days, which were ripe with banality and devoid of personality. All of this from a 30-second clip and a fascinating list of cast and crew.

Del Toro co-wrote the novel with Chuck Hogan, and at times Hogan’s penchant for the hardboiled stuff overwhelms del Toro’s singular style of magical-horror. Not that Hogan is a bad writer — he wrote the source material from which came Ben Affleck’s The Town, and he’s been praised by Stephen King (though at this point, who hasn’t?). But a story about vampires, diseases, bodily mutation, and mutilation has been done so many times its treads have worn away, and it just doesn’t really make an impact. The novel needed more del Toro.

The show is a ostensibly a chance to remedy that, though don’t expect too much direct involvement from del Toro: He co-wrote the pilot with Hogan and directed it, but the showrunner is Carlton Cuse of Lost fame. The first 30-second trailer features some intriguing lighting and color schemes, and a few generic, CGI-addled quick shots. It shows signs of del Toro’s debut Cronos, an atypical vampire flick that conjured a different kind of mythos two decades before the ubiquitous bloom of vampires in pop-culture, and his Hollywood debut Mimic, a jarring stupid but visually stunning dud about man-sized bugs that del Toro has since disowned. Hopefully The Strain is more like the former.

The novel reads like the first-draft of a film outline, with scenes skirring by in blockbuster bursts, break-neck pacing eschewing character development in its quest to raise your pulse. Del Toro’s best work has more empathy, and a firm but dreamy sense of place. He laces his stories with melancholy and sorrow but ultimate ends things with an almost life-affirming compassion. Mnemonic and fleeting, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth exist in fictional renditions of real settings, controlled and corralled by the knavery of cruel men and off-set by the persistence of those who resist them.

The Strain stars the always-excellent Corey Stoll (Peter in the American House of Cards), the always-under-appreciated Kevin Durand (wonderfully calm in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and probably the only actor who left X-Men Origins: Wolverine with his dignity intact), and David Bradley, best known as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films. Stoll in particular warrants excitement, as he gave the most believable performance in House of Cards.

Music has always been pertinent to del Toro’s films. His best work prominently features gorgeously lush scores that carry with them an entire spectrum of emotion. Javier Navarrete’s scores for del Toro’s best two films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, are sinuous, sensual, sorrowful, beautiful; you can feel the childhood innocence drip off of every minor chord sustained, and the sense of awe slowly veering from the sublime to the tragic. Fernando Velázquez’s work on Juan Antonio Bayona’s supremely well-crafted slow-burner The Orphanage, which del Toro produced, taps the same emotive, Tchaikovsky-inspired efficacy as Navarrete, at times timorous, then histrionic, languishing in intensity before swelling again. His music for the under-appreciated thriller Mama is also enthralling.

Ramin Djawadi, who is scoring The Strain, doesn’t have such an illustrious resume. His credits include Iron Man and Pacific Rim; for the latter he concocted a bombastic symphony of horn blasts to accompany the clashing, clunking, cacophonous collision of metal and monster that del Toro relentlessly threw at the screen for over two hours. He also scored the remake of Red Dawn, but good look remembering anything about that film.

Guillermo del Toro is finishing up filming his new film, Crimson Peak, which is bursting with potential, and one has to wonder if del Toro left The Strain to Cuse and Hogan while he worked on his own film. A return to the smaller-scale, historical fairy tales he cut his teeth on, Crimson Peak has a Fernando Velázquez score (a good sign) and a stellar cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleson (fantastic in this year’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which also featured Wasikowska), Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam. The film is being shot by Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who has done some surprisingly good work on some pretty bad films (The League of Extraordinary GentlemenSilent Hill, del Toro’s Mimic).

With The Strain premiering in a month, Crimson Peak entering post-production (always an arduous ordeal for del Toro’s films), and a brand new trailer for the animated Book of Life just released today, we should be hearing a lot about Guillermo del Toro in the coming months.

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