Written by: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, and Kelly McGillis
Reviewed by: Brett G.
The most dangerous thing is to be alive.
The post-apocalyptic world is likely to be a scary place, I guess. And if weíre to believe Stake Land, one thing we wonít be able to stomach is all the damn vampires. I think itís becoming increasingly difficult to stomach these bastards as it is, as theyíve saturated everything lately--the big screen, the small screen, literature, and whatever Twilight qualifies as. Iíve even considered putting some garlic on top of my DVD player lately just to keep them away. Itís a good thing I didnít though (for one thing, the smell would have been off-putting) because I would have missed out on this delightful little kick-ass film from director Jim Mickle.
Sometime in the future, the earth has been ravaged by bloodsuckers. Young Martin (Connor Paolo) sees his family slaughtered by them before his own eyes; the only thing that spares him from sharing their fate is a grizzled vampire hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici). He arrives in the nick of time and takes Martin under his wing to teach him how to survive the undead pandemic. The two live life on the road, with their ultimate destination being the possibly mythical ďNew Eden,Ē a sort of vamp-free safe haven, which is vaguely up north somewhere.
I suppose Stake Land is the vampiric, straight-faced counterpart to Zombieland with its mix of road/action movie aesthetic and the undead. But itís also got a little bit of Karate Kid tossed in as well, as the relationship between Martin and Mister is central to the film; itís an odd, understated relationship, and not quite a gentle one, either. Mister is laconic, gruff, and carries himself with the steadfast determinism of an Old West outlaw. Heís an enigmatic figure with some sort of mysterious past--very basic, standard stuff, really. However, thereís a certain softness to him; Damaci does a fine job balancing the characterís snippiness with his reluctant fatherly aspects.
His protťgť carries the same name as the infamous George Romero character, a boy who believed he was a vampire; however, this Martin wants nothing more than to be a fearless vampire killer. He not only wants to do this for survival, but also to please Mister; above all else, Stake Land feels like a twisted bildungsroman tale--it just so happens our young man is growing up in the shadow of a vampire apocalypse. Adolescence is tough enough, but imagine trying to navigate those treacherous hormonal waters in this case (all Martin has to satisfy his urges is a deck of nudie playing cards). Anyway, the relationship between Martin and Mister is a nicely understated thread that runs throughout Stake Land. Much of the film is rather episodic, as the duo run into various people on their journey, but they are the glue holding the narrative together.
Horror fans will recognize Danielle Harris as one of those faces--sheís a pregnant songstress that gets picked up along the way. She, too, develops a relationship with Martin, though it surprisingly stays platonic, which is a nice touch. Slightly less recognizable is Kelly McGillis, who resurfaces here as a nun who is understandably having a crisis with her faith. And with good reason--God has seemingly forsook the world, but that hasnít stopped a bunch of cannibalistic cultists/crazies from committing atrocities in his name. These guys call themselves the Brotherhood and actually believe the vampires to be heaven sent and performing the will of god. Thatís another element that seems recycled from other stories, but it adds a cool, Romero-equse vibe of paranoia and distrust; really, itís not the vampires thatíll get you as much as your fellow man.
Mickle does a fine job at creating a post-apocalyptic world; itís not a barren, desolate wasteland, but rather the world as we know it, only a little bit shaggier and burned out. Pockets of civilization persist, and one of the filmís most effective moments comes when we see how humanity still manages to eek out an existence in such dark days. Make no mistake, Stake Land is a great action/horror hybrid with some suspenseful scenes, slick as hell visuals, and a powerful score by Jeff Grace; however, it succeeds because it manages to stretch beyond this with its poignant, emotional timbre. It dials in the perfect notes at the right times--when it needs to kick ass, it kicks ass. When it needs to be muted and let the actors carry the day, it does that as well. That seems like such a simple balance to maintain, but itís amazing how many films miss out on that.
Stake Land doesnít miss out on much; it might be a familiar grab bag of elements, but itís a nice-looking bag, full of memorable characters and solid horror thrills. Itís been out on the festival circuit for a long time and even hit theaters in some markets; if youíre like me and live in the middle of nowhere, youíve probably heard great things on your Twitter feed for months. Thanks to Dark Sky Films, you can now join the party. Youíve got DVD and Blu-ray options; I went with the latter, which features a fine presentation for the film. High def does the filmís visuals a real favor, and the lossless audio track is stunningly loud and rich. After the movieís over, plenty of special features await in the form of two commentaries, a making-of documentary, 7 short films that serve as prequels for the characters, video diaries, and the TIFF premiere and Q&A session. Definitely pick it up--this is a finely crafted vampire tale where the vampires take a backseat and we donít miss them. In a cinematic world thatís likewise been overrun by these creatures of the night, maybe thatís exactly what we need from a vampire flick. Buy it!
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