Sometimes you take a premise and wring it for all it’s worth and you add some soul, humor, great casting, and gritty action to give it the right flavor. That’s exactly what the post-apocalyptic vampire road movie Stake Land does, as director Jim Mickle takes Nick Damici’s script and fine-tunes the narrative enough to elevate it above a simple romp through vampire infested back roads and really connect with the audience. The biggest draw will be the different classes of vampires Stake Land introduces, but even the retreaded portions of the film are executed so well that the end result is better than the sum of its parts. Hit the jump for my full review and why this was my favorite film of the entire festival.
We are dropped into the middle of a post-apocalyptic world where vampires run amok after a virus of some sort has quickly spread through the world. The government and economy has long since crumbled and people are largely left to fend for themselves or join the small communities of resistance that typically barricade themselves from the outside threat as long as they can manage. Enter Martin (Connor Paolo), who is rescued by the mysterious vampire hunter known as Mister (Nick Damici) and taught how to kill the beasts and fend for himself. As we follow the duo on their journey to the supposed sanctuary of New Eden, they have to not only fight off the various vampire classes but also survive the cultist religious groups that believe this is God’s punishment to the unrighteous heathens left on Earth.
The premise of Stake Land isn’t breaking new ground. We have had road movies, and we have had horror films that dealt with a similar premise. This very well could feel like Zombieland meets The Road, if the two had a baby and it was infested with vampires. Then again, that wouldn’t be a bad genealogy to spring forth from. However, Stake Land does forge its own identity enough to stand by itself and the gritty feel and clever action enhance the film beyond a tired retread that it could have been labeled as in lesser hands. The fights themselves are particularly worth noting, as every action set piece receives center stage in the camera’s frame and the audience is given a clear sense of what is transpiring on screen.
A vampire film often rests on the vampire’s themselves, and thankfully Stake Land goes a long way to blaze its own trail and utilize practical effects for their vampires and add a new dimension. There is a visceral feel to the vampires/zombie hybrid, as they are demonic, grimy, and dirty. They look like they are foraging in the woods, and we learn early on that simply poking them in the heart is not enough to dispatch them. You have to forcefully drive a stake through their heart while they are writhing and struggling beneath, and using a hammer is typically the tool for the job. However, the results are predictably messy and difficult, which means getting up close and personal with the bloodsuckers is a must. Additionally, the different classes of vampires are cause for celebration in a genre that doesn’t often tread new ground. The worst of the vampires are the berserkers, who are the oldest of the vampires and have evolved within their lifespan to have a nearly impenetrable breast plate and keen sense of smell and agility. The berserkers are ferocious and have to be dispatched by severing the spinal cord right below the base of the skull, which adds a new wrinkle to how close you have to get.
The casting is also worthy of mentioning for Stake Land, and there is a lot for fans from different generations and genres to look forward to. Are you a fan of Danielle Harris, the virtual scream queen for my generation? Good, because our duo runs into her character, the very pregnant Belle, along their journey and she becomes a memorable dynamic in the group. We also have the lovely Kelly McGillis, who plays a nun that is rescued by our duo from the devious religious cult led by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris). Of course, the entire film rests on the two male leads, Paolo and Damici, who have an odd father and son bond that plays perfectly on screen. Damici’s Mister is an old-school cowboy-hat wearing teacher that is demanding and strict in his rules, but also has a heart of gold. He is sly and ferociously protective over those under his watch, but wants only the best that he lets into his circle. For fans of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Mister is about as Roland Deschain as it gets and I think Damici would be a brilliant bit of casting if he landed that role. Meanwhile, we have Paolo’s Martin, who has very few lines in the film itself, but is the viewpoint through which the film is shown as he gives a number of voiceovers to help guide the audience along. While the film utilizes a large cast to flesh out the world of Stake Land, it seems like all of the intermediate characters are given a hefty amount of screen time and depth to develop, despite little to no background as the narrative rumbles on from dreary landscape to dreary landscape.
Every stop for Martin and Mister brings new intrigue and danger, and the color palette of muted blues and greys add to the stench of death all around our protagonists. While Martin develops under the tutelage of Mister, he always retains his innocence despite his increasingly violent encounters with “the vamps.” Although the overzealous religious cult never feels quite a realistic as compared to The Mist, the actions and cruelties they enact are never beyond the realm of believability which grounds the story that much more.
All in all, Stake Land is a rousing success that shows even in a genre as overexposed as vampires, we can still have affecting tales that add enough to the mix to feel fresh and real. Utilizing strong performances from its excellent cast, this low-budget feature never shows signs that it is anything less than a top-tier production, utilizing practical effects and sets to intensify the gritty atmosphere. Spanning 98 minutes, Stake Land never runs out of steam and the riveting action sequences add to the emotionally powerful final conclusion that makes this film a shining example of how a production can come together and create involving characters in an intriguing story of perseverance against all odds. Stake Land is set for an early 2011 release by MPI Media Group and Dark Sky Films.