Somber vampire apocalypse movie reminiscent of The Road.
I had heard rumblings of Stake Land, the new vampire apocalypse movie, over the last year. The positive reaction it received earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival just drove home the fact that this movie was something worth checking out during Fantastic Fest. Besides the fact that the movie dealt with a world overrun with vampires, I didn’t know much more about it. Based on the name, I half expected a bloodsucking version of Zombieland.
Boy, was I wrong.
Director Jim Mickle’s movie has much more in common with The Road than it does with Zombieland, the zombie horror comedy that premiered at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Almost completely devoid of a sense of humor, Stake Land is a somber exploration of familiar bonds in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s also really damn good. Mickle co-wrote the film with star Nick Damici. A quasi-western, the film is set in a world where vampires have swept the country. Society is in shambles and the world has reset itself back to a simpler time. Electricity is limited; safety an even rarer commodity. It’s all about staying alive and that means staying away from the dark.
After a young boy named Martin (Connor Paolo) is orphaned when a vampire slaughters his family, he joins a mysterious drifter named Mister (Damici) who is traveling north in search of sanctuary and killing as many bloodsuckers as he can along the way. Besides the threat of vampires there are also the religious nut jobs that believe the vampire apocalypse is a sign from God. They have taken up wearing robes and raping and/or killing anything that gets within reaching distance. Leading the cult is Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a gaunt man who makes it his personal mission to wipe Mister off the face of the planet after the vampire hunter kills Loven’s son — a would-be rapist who was attacking a nun.
Kelly McGillis returns to the big screen for the first time in nearly ten years as Sister, the nun Mister and his sidekick save from the cultists. McGillis is amazing as a woman who, despite the horror that surrounds her, has not lost her faith. Half-naked and running for her life the first time we see her, Sister is a character that maintains her hope despite the steady stream of strife that rains down on her.
Modern day horror scream queen Danielle Harris also co-stars as Belle, a pregnant woman who joins the group along the way. The actors all do a fine job resenting a world-weariness that envelops a society facing a constant barrage of violent death at every turn.
Stake Land feels very episodic — almost like a seasons-worth of a television series crammed into one movie. There are clearly defined character arcs, changes in the season’s weather and recurring villains. In fact, the movie was originally developed as a web series. I actually might have preferred to see Stake Land as a series. Despite its strengths, Stake Land feels like it’s restrained from being something bigger and more epic. I never really had the chance to connect with any of the side characters — despite them all seeming really interesting — because the plot is constantly moving forward. I would have liked to see the plot given a chance to breathe.
Despite the episodic and somewhat stilted structure of the movie, Stake Land really works as a relationship drama with some solid vampire carnage thrown in. These aren’t your glittering vampires, though. Stake Land‘s vampires might as well have been zombies with the graveyard shift. They’re near brainless rampaging monsters that will rip out your throat instead of attempting to seduce you.
The film’s striking cinematography gives the movie an epic feel — despite what I’m sure was a micro-budget. Charming bluegrass folk music will bring back memories of the soundtrack to Firefly.
There are a few faltering steps in Stake Land — unnecessary plot twists and slightly overbearing narration — but over all the film remains a beautiful horror film that’s as touching as it gory. A handful of memorable scenes (including one with cultists in helicopters using vampires as weapons of mass destruction) help the movie to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, though, the film fails to completely escape the shadows of its obvious inspirations — Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the long running Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
Those, by no means, are bad inspirations to have, though. Stake Land is a fine movie worth checking out — especially if you enjoy quiet, introspective dramas that have a tendency to break out into extreme displays of horror.
Director: Jim Mickle Notable Cast: Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Michael Cerveris and Connor Paolo Writer: Jim Mickle and Nick Damici
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.