Perhaps you are sick to the fanged teeth of the vampire overkill in recent movies and TV shows, and have no interest in witnessing any more blood-sucking action. Well hang-fire, as Stake Land could show you that there is still plenty of life left in the undead genre.
Stake Land is directed by Jim Mickle who had a long career as a grip before switching to directing on the horror feature Mulberry Street in 2006. That film saw Manhattan swamped by rat infected mutants out to dine on the city’s inhabitants. Stake Land covers similar ground only bigger and better as this time not just New York but the whole of the US has been sent straight to hell thanks to a virus outbreak and is now teeming with the walking dead.
Across the pitiless post-apocalyptic landscape strides ‘Mister’, a man too damn tough to have a proper name. Mister is short on talk and even shorter on mercy. His prime purpose is survival and dispatching vampires as swiftly as possible. Not that he stops with the vamps; anyone that Mister considers deserves to die, rapists for example, are given short shrift.
Mister is played by Nick Damici, who also co-wrote both this film and Mulberry Street. Damici is an actor with a string of credits but, so far, little fame. If anything is set to make him an iconic figure then this should do it as he is super cool in the role.
Somewhere deep below Mister’s gruffer than gruff exterior there must still be a beating heart as he saves a young boy called Martin (Connor Paolo from Gossip Girl) whose family are wiped out by the monsters in a grisly opening sequence. Together the duo head north to a potential paradise known as ‘New Eden,’ picking up a few stragglers along the way. These include a pregnant girl (Danielle Harris) and, for a bit of contrast, a nun (welcome back Kelly McGillis) understandably caught in a crisis of faith.
Not that Mister has any time for religion. When the sister brings up the idea of God, Mister dismisses her with a curt, “We don’t do history.” His attitude is not unjustified for, as the band make their way through miles of wilderness, they run into ‘The Brethren,’ a cult of shaven headed lunatics who feel that the vampires are God’s scourge upon a sinful world. Their idea of missionary work is flying over the survivors’ settlements in a helicopter and dropping in a few blood-suckers for an impromptu lunch date.
Now I’m not saying that Stake Land is an entirely original piece of work. Mickle is clearly proud of his influences with George Miller, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi being amongst them. Mickle’s action scenes have more than a touch of The Evil Dead about them. Yet, Stake Land is a cut above more recent efforts, being an accomplished and thoughtful piece of work. There is plenty of blood, gore and violence to keep the horror fans happy but the film also has something to say about the state of humanity in general and the US in particular.
There is a wonderfully bleak poetry to the film which somehow ties it to the spirit of the old west (to which America has virtually reverted in the film’s story.) Mister seemingly lacks compassion – “I’m worried about the girl,” he says of his pregnant burden, “She could slow us down” – but the world he inhabits is equally brutal with everyone fair game to be the next victim. The cinematography of Ryan Samul is a great help to this overall fatalistic mood capitalising on the woods and mountains which comprise the film’s killing ground.
Some may find the film a little slow and feel that the climax, though appropriate and satisfying does not reach the heightened level of intensity that you might expect from a film of this type. Nit pickers could also argue that the creatures in this are closer to zombies than vampires. They certainly bear a passing resemblance to the sort of George Romero style dopey, shambling brain munchers that are fun to pick off from a distance with a high-powered rifle. Small quibbles really as, overall, Stake Land sets out with grand ambitions which it largely fulfils.
Stake Land is intelligently rendered horror. It's a cut above more recent efforts, being an accomplished and thoughtful piece of work and an overall, enjoyable watch.