Deggsy’s Corner: Stake Land (2010)
This is Derek’s review of STAKE LAND. Derek was unaware that I watched STAKE LAND last night, and I loved the film so much that I am going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to add my own comments into Derek’s review. I agree 100% with his review and loved and had problems with the same elements as Derek. So anytime you see brackets, [ ], with boldface print in it, those are my comments.
Thanks again for another kick ass review, Derek!!
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not fond of vampires. And it doesn’t even have anything to do with The Sparkly Ones (except to briefly consider how different the horror world would be today if Stephenie Meyers had called her supernatural Emos elves or faeries instead of vampires). No, I hated a certain breed of vampires long before TWILIGHT. It was the ones which possessed a nasty streak of romanticism, one that ingrained BUFFY and ANGEL, one that was passed down through Anne Rice’s books, and deep into Frank Langella’s take on Dracula and Barnabas Collins: the notion of the tortured, civilized soul who must live in darkness and feed on life, and yet still fall in love with the food supply from which they sprang.
Even from an early age these vampires seemed like bullshit to me, because it seemed that if a vampire started out as human, and possessed a semblance of a human psychology, it couldn’t handle the decades, the centuries of accumulated guilt that would come with the empathy required for love, and it would either snuff itself out, or just go feral. Even the ones that were barely human-like, such as Christopher Lee’s Dracula or Janos Skorzeny in THE NIGHT STALKER were pushing it for me. Maybe it was the fact that my first remembered taste of vampires had been THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) and LEMORA (1973) which beyond the eponymous characters featured snarling, vicious, mute vampires who attacked all; men, women, and children. These seemed more realistic (in as much as vampires can be realistic, of course).
These types seemed to fade out of favor after this, except for rare gems like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), and anyway I focused my attention on zombies. But I’m thankful to say that the feral vampire returned to prominence with the release of Jim Mickle’s STAKE LAND (2010). Made on a budget of $6 million (above the Maxed Out Credit Card stage but still well below the average Hollywood film), STAKE LAND was one I almost passed up on, as the title and the brief synopsis I read almost immediately made me dismiss it as an Asylum knock-off of ZOMBIELAND. I’m glad I gave it a shot.
There is some comparison to be made with the aforementioned movie: it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, there’s a young male protagonist narrator traveling with an older, experienced mentor who teaches him how to survive against the dangerous hordes surrounding them. But that’s about it, really. Where ZOMBIELAND was funny and breezy and focused on zombies as the threat, STAKE LAND is a serious, somber but still fast-moving piece, and the threats came not just from the undead bloodsuckers, but from fellow survivors. The mood of the film comes as much from grim offerings such THE ROAD and THE LAST DAY as it does vampire and zombie films.
We open on young Martin (GOSSIP GIRL’s Connor Paolo), in a barn with his parents and baby sibling, as we hear ominous news reports about the growing plague across America. When the family dog strays out into the darkness and Martin follows, a man known only as Mister (Nick Damici, who also starred in Mickle’s equally impressive MULBERRY STREET [one of the only good After Dark Horrorfest films. Damici also wrote both STAKE LAND and MULBERRY STREET with Mickles]), an apparent attacker who ends up saving Martin when a vampire enters and kills Martin’s family. The scene where the vampire drains the baby and casually tosses it aside like an emptied beer can made me sit up and realize that there’d be no “tortured soul” bullshit here! [This scene happens early in the film are had me staring at the TV, mouth wide open, wondering if that really just happened!!]
From then on Martin travels with Mister, learning the proper ways of dealing with the vampires that have overrun America (bullets can slow them down, but only a stake in the heart or brain will do the trick, and they’re vulnerable to sunlight and low temperatures, being cold-blooded). Large cities (and the need to make matte shots of them) are avoided, and they stick to the back roads and wildernesses (this was filmed in upstate New York, and Jim Mickle made very good use of the abandoned lots and factories as well as the woods and side roads up there). Mister takes the vampires’ fangs out and uses them as barter in the few fortified communities remaining (a refreshing touch for me was that in this doomsday scenario, not everyone is out to get everyone else), and at night he sets simple but effective alarms and traps for any approaching bloodsuckers.
Mister is the typical laconic type, but Nick Damici makes good use of expression and action to speak for him, and while harsh at times also displays heroism. At one stage he rescues a nun, Sister Anna (Kelly McGilis, looking a million miles away from when she rode around with Tom Cruise in TOP GUN, but then that was 25 years ago), who’d been held captive and raped by scavengers. This earns him the wrath of crazy-as-an-outhouse-rat cult leader Jebedia Loven (Micahel Cerveris, who later I found played the enigmatic Observer on TV’s FRINGE), who’s given to using the vampires as weapons against his fellow survivors. [Cerveris’ Jebediah looked a little like the titular character’s in PRIEST].
This is essentially a ‘road movie’, as Martin, Mister and Sister Anna pick up other survivors and stragglers along the way [genre fav Danielle Harris being one such survivor], while making their way north to the Canadian border, where it’s said they can find sanctuary (though it is hinted that this might be a myth, and that no New Eden exists across the border). There are pauses for character moments and reflection, and glimpses of people’s lives before everything went to hell, but it’s never long before there’s another action sequence, either with vampires or with the likes of Jebedia’s group, The Brotherhood, and there are some surprising, often shocking but always logical turns in their fortunes [just wait till you see the scene where the Brotherhood throws vampires out of a helicopter onto a peaceful militia].
Being vampires rather than zombies, the gore is not as plentiful as I might have preferred [although when it comes time for the gore scenes, we get a lot], but at the time I didn’t miss it, being caught up in the characters and story, and the action remains realistic rather than packed with Buffy-esque acrobatics. There’s also an evocative soundtrack which is far from the pop/heavy metal offerings of ZOMBIELAND, one which reflects the bleak atmosphere of the film. If I have any qualms with STAKE LAND, it would be with the final fate of the Jebedia character (it’s difficult to go into detail without revealing spoilers, but what happens to him goes against everything we’d learned up to that point) and with the introduction of a new character, with whom we’ve had little time to invest any emotion with compared with those who have come and gone.
But STAKE LAND proved to me to be an impressive, considered tale, particularly given its relatively low budget. [Sure it’s full of the standard message that human’s are more monstrous than the monsters, but this is never bashed over our heads. Mickle’s is a huge talent and I’ll be looking forward to his next film.] STAKE LAND is currently in limited release in UK cinemas and will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the U.S on August 2.
[This is a really solid and fantastic film full of great characters, great acting, great gore, and vicious, feral vampires that don’t glitter or sparkle!! Check out STAKE LAND for sure; this one broke my streak of mediocre genre films.]
Director: Jim Mickle (who also co-wrote it)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 7 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 4 out of 5 brains (though technically they’re vampires)
Reviewed by Derek O’Brien