When he went on the Late Late Show to promote The Strain, Guillermo del Toro – who co-wrote his first novel with seasoned crime writer Chuck Hogan – told Craig Ferguson that his goal with the book was to reclaim vampire lore from the decidedly unmenacing lover-vampires popularized by Anne Rice and, God forbid, Stephenie Meyer. (Watch the Late Late Show excerpt below the jump – worth it just for Ferguson's uncannily accurate take on Twilight.) I do think he overstates his case a bit – the last decade has offered such a surfeit of vampire stories, that there would seem to be something for everyone (not least del Toro's own Blade II, easily the best of that franchise). Still, I'm grateful to have del Toro's twisted imagination provide an antidote to the glittering fairy-vampire nonsense everyone always insists on discussing these days.

The novel, which came out June 2nd, just popped up in the #9 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. It's not every day that a filmmaker as worshipped as del Toro makes a popular literary foray, so I thought The Strain was worth talking about. It is not currently pegged for a film adaptation, but I suspect that won't remain the case for very long. Whatever its merits as a book, it would make a kickass horror flick.
In truth, whatever you expect from a del Toro-penned vampire novel, you'll probably get. As Roger Ebert once put it, del Toro fancies "sickening things that bite you and aren't even designed to let go," and that fondness is in full force here. Thus, The Strain's contribution to vampire lore is mostly biological: vampirism is reconceived as a sort of living, virulent cancer that completely repurposes the host body for its purposes. If that sounds overly clinical, rest assured that the novel doesn't lack for viscera: the authors add all manner of charming detail, from a stinger that emerges from under the tongue to slice the victim's neck, to the fate of a vampire's genitalia, to the fact that the creatures defecate as they feed.

There's also the expected obsession with ancient, unspeakable evil – here, a powerful merciless vampire "Master" who's hidden in caves for centuries before making an appearance on a commercial airliner - though the marriage between that aspect of The Strain and its gross-out tendencies turns out to be a little uneasy. Perhaps freed of the need to painstakingly assemble brilliant, expensive visual set pieces, del Toro also displays a penchant for elaborate red herrings: intriguing elements that are introduced with fanfare but don't really go anywhere. (See, e.g., the solar eclipse that opens the novel.)

In truth, the filmmaker's visual inventiveness is missed. Like del Toro's "harder" horror efforts (think Mimic), The Strain is merciless and relentless – vampire attacks described in brutal detail number in the dozens, and victims include kids and infants. It's fun, but it also gets a little repetitive, and the authors are forced to establish a ton of characters just to tear them down. (It's a slasher flick device that really works better on film, where you can adequately introduce a victim with a couple of shots and lines of dialogue instead of pages of background.) At the same time, I was making the movie in my head as I read.

The Strain, I am informed, began as an outline for a television series, which makes a lot of sense, especially since the ending virtually begs for a sequel (it's apparently the first book in a trilogy). That might have worked better, especially on cable, where the filmmaker would have been free(er) to indulge in gory, R-rated escapades. The novel is a bit klutzily written (though the prose seems to pick up after a dire couple of chapters, so stick with it); the protagonist is given a personal crisis (a custody battle) that turns hopelessly sappy; and when the thirtieth minor character is graphically dispatched five pages after being introduced, you sort of want to cry uncle. All the same, this is a breezy, goofy, fun read – not a horror classic, but good enough. If nothing else, del Toro certainly achieves his goal: these are vampires, not brooding loverboys or – as Craig Ferguson quips below – Jonas Brothers.

categories Features, Cinematical