Make No Mistake!
Stake Land US 2011
Directed by Jim Mickle
Playing at cinemas now.
This one’s pretty much spoiler-free... as opposed to having free spoilers.
Jim Mickle’s independent horror movie Stake Land is a really interesting genre piece which, while not actually giving us anything new to established vampire cinema (asides, perhaps, from the nice touch of collecting fangs from your victims to keep a tally of undead kills), certainly pulls no punches in delivering good old vampire thrills and chills which other movies might gloss over to some extent or bulk up in a more commercially wrapped offering. Co-written by the director and one of the main leads, Nick Damici, Stake Land takes us into a scenario which is usually the exclusive bailiwick of the vampire’s illegitimate cousin of a genre, "the zombie movie" in that it takes us into a setting where the earth has been overrun by hordes of the undead and the few humans left alive have formed into little communities and outposts to survive their situation.
Like most undead movies, this vampire flick makes absolutely no attempt to explain why earth has come to be plunged into such a dire set of circumstances... content to let the action play out in an alternative universe which you have to invest in from the very start. Like the recent film Zombieland, which also uses a post-undead road trip format for its story to hang on, it also tells it’s story from the narrative viewpoint of a teenage boy who has been picked up by, in this case, a tough as nails vampire-killer named Mister (played by the aforementioned Nick Damici) including voice-over dialogue which reminded me at first of the Sissy Spacek narrative on Badlands... but there the similarity ends. Zombieland is a fun movie with a few scares and the usual predilection for zombie-killing body count sequences. Stake Land is not exactly shy of vampire-killing but it’s a lot more heavier on the scares and it has a lot more going for it than that.
For starters, it’s a lot more grittier than your standard undead-creatures-overrun-the-earth movie and right from the outset contains scenes which a major studio might have backed off from... for instance when one of our main protagonists is lured from his home and returns to see his family has been eaten and a vampire chowing down on a babe in arms... the bloody toddler carcass is left to drop to the floor as he sees the returning teenage boy. And it also doesn’t shy away from letting the audience make connections and skip scenes a less independently financed movie might want to stop and elaborate on. For instance, during the first ten minutes or so of the movie, we are led up to a mentor using a live vampire to train the young newbie in the necessary art of lethal defence and offence... as this sequence starts though, we just skip to the next part of the movie and are left to assume that it all went fine. This is fair enough and there’s plenty of vampire combat later to more than make up for the ommission in the early parts of the movie.
The movie also feels gritty through its cinematography. Lots of hand-held camerawork going on in this one but also an interesting amount of busy texture and constant filming of objects and details in the foreground of a shot to overshadow the actual action within the frame at any one time and this gives everything a sort of added sense of realism or at least depth to the shots... in much the same way that Roger Corman would leave the doors in his interiors open with a view of another room to give his shots an added richness they might otherwise be lacking. I’m not saying that this is why the director of Stake Land does this with his shot compositions... just that it’s what it reminded me of.
While this movie does suffer from the use of a lot of genre clichés, including a pregnant woman to slow the main protagonists down when they’re trying to run from a vampire attack... this movie more than makes up for it in the places its willing to go to in order to make all its points and I was particularly impressed with the decision on the writers’ parts to examine other effects on society that a vampire holocaust might bring. I don’t want to spoil things for readers who might not have seen the movie yet but lets just say that the robust and super-fast, super-strong vampires in this movie are not the only dangerous perils in this brave new world of survival and hardship. There’s worse things than vampires in them thar hills folks.
Stake Land can be a gruelling watch but it is at times tempered and sometimes adrenalised by a nice, homespun Americana-fiddle-de-do score by Jeff Grace which, at times gets a little minimalist and Glass-like but more than anything reminded me quite strongly of Greg Edmonson’s similar scoring for Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly. It’s pretty good... I’m not sure I’d buy it as a stand-alone listen but it’s certainly quite effective as a supporting voice to the film and helps keep everything nicely tacked together. It’s all very listenable within the context of the movie.
There’s one grump I had with this film (there’s gotta be one right?) and that was this. The movie doesn’t exactly draw attention to the fact that a vampire will react to sunlight like a piece of overdone toast left on for too long... it certainly doesn’t downplay it either... so why is that first, live (um...undead) vampire training session we don’t really get to see set in broad daylight. I think the answer to that question is possibly that they made the decision to go with that useful part of the vampire myth after they’d shot those scenes... and that they probably left as much as they thought they could get away with in the movie (ie. practically nothing) without people realising they’d just violated a major piece of vampire legend in much the same way that the makers of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein did when they accidentally let Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cast a reflection in a mirror in that movie. If this is the case then my earlier statements about the paring down of certain scenes are less valid and less complimentary to the film-makers... so I’ll not worry too much about that one... continuity being the hobgoblin of small minds and other clichéd but useful quotes which directors and producers often use to help justify their own stupidity.
In summation then, Stake Land is a wonderful gem of a movie which should sit well with most horror movie fans (if not necessarily vampire fans). While I personally won’t be spending any time in Stake Land again in the forseeable future (unless they do a sequel) there’s certainly a lot to recommend in it and there’s a certain mean-spiritedness to the villains of the movie which, although the violence and gore are not excessive, make for a harrowing time at some points in terms of suspense and there's also some nicely unexpected turns of events that people used to a solid diet of blockbuster cinema might find a little more refreshing than their standard fare. Definitely worth a gander if horror cinema is your thing.