Stake Land (2010)
(15) Running Time: 97 minutes
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
OK, let’s make one thing absolutely clear right from the beginning; Stake Land is NOTHING like the trailer would have you believe. This is not a complaint, merely an observation. Stake Land is, however,, one of the most interesting and thought provoking horrors I have seem in some time. Bleak is too positive a word though for the content in this film, this is depressing stuff and, much like The Road before it, will not leave you feeling exactly happy or joyful. If anything, it may make you want to kill yourself, but as I always say, if a movie can conjure up some form of emotion, good or bad, then it has done a good job!
Stake Land, as I said, is not technically a horror, it is more a heavy drama about an apocalyptic world (favoured by all kinds of director’s right now) with Vampires added in for that horror touch. We don’t get full on scares here, more an atmosphere of hopelessness and desperation with plenty of gore which, at times, really pushes the films 15 certificate. The plot follows a young lad by the name of Martin (Connor Paolo) and his trek across a savaged America under the guidance of a Vampire hunter known simply as Mister (a superb Nick Damici). Their plan is to find a place North of Canada called Eden, where the human race live together peacefully, and no Vampires are there to ruin things. Now, as you would expect from a film about a world brought to its knees by a Vampire contagion, things are not as simple as simply getting from A to B. There are many obstacles in the way, and the journey is hard and painful. As the two face their own personal Demons, they also encounter hungry Vampires, vicious Religious nutters and bad weather, all the while Martin tells the story in a voiceover much like Casey Afflecks dreamlike narration in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Martin’s narration is hypnotic, full of passion and sensitivity whilst guiding you through the story with ease. However, the narration is a warm glow out of the dark and gloomy reality you have to visibly watch.
Violence is never far away, and boy does Mister know how to handle himself. Carrying all sorts of weapons and improvising where needed, Mister is a skilled killer not afraid of anyone or anything. Damici owns the character and you almost come to believe he is invincible. He teaches Martin how to kill and how to defend himself against the vicious Vampires who hunt throughout the night. Along their journey they pick up a few acquaintances, an old woman whom Mister viciously saves from being raped, a pregnant girl named Belle (Harris) and an ex marine called Willie (Sean Nelson). The group travel though this baron land, facing danger almost everywhere. It is not until they briefly head high up the mountains that they find peace amongst the freezing temperatures. A town guarded by police becomes a safe haven for a quick nights celebrating and trading too, only the night does not go according to plan. Not only do the group have to fear and hide from the Vampires, Mister has also upset some religious fanatics lead by Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris) and these fellas are almost as scary as the Vampires themselves with their tattoos and bald heads. They make deals with Vampires and believe they are of a higher power to other humans and become delightfully nasty in places.
The Vampires themselves are hideous creations, a cross between Vampire and Zombie, with the emphasis more on Zombie. In fact, had you not read that this movie was actually about a Vampire epidemic, you could argue the monsters were actually Zombies since they move and behave like Zombies and have barely any Vampire characteristics apart from a lust for blood. Then again, you could argue that the fact they behave like this is because they have become desperate, there are not many food sources left and they are now scavengers. It is a clever twist on the Vampire genre, and one I think should be embraced. Here Vampirism is not shown in a good light, you do not want to become a Vampire after seeing this movie, and it proves that yes Vampires may live forever, but would you really want to in this state? This is a million miles from The Lost Boys and their ‘sleep all day, party all night’ moto. Stake Land is a serious film for the serious movie fan that deals with some real issues about ‘what would you do?’ and ‘would you give up?’ Some of the Vampire attacks are highly inventive, working in packs and cornering their pray, other times they are just plain daft and you can do nothing but blame them for getting killed.
With each attack, Martin learns more skills and becomes more confident, and with each attack the cold Mister starts to care that little bit more about him. There is a strong relationship between the two, with barely a word muttered between them but always an understanding. So this is also a very deep film, you too care about the characters and they are easy to like which makes the whole journey that little bit more worrying.
The pace of the film is often slow, at times I came close to nodding off, however the numerous attack set pieces more than make up for the pace. However, the film could have been a little shorter. The actual horror elements could have been used to a more stronger advantage, the idea for the premise is great but it just needed that little extra kick at times. The music, however, carries the film and really drives the mood and feel of what is happening. A sort of tranquil yet urgent sound that lingers in the background and haunts the film. The music and the baron land really add up to an intense mood and brooding atmosphere which is captured perfectly by the often brutal lack of colour, all greys and faded blues and browns. Stake Land feels like a film with something to say, something to prove. It is not an easy ‘horror’ to swallow, it is a difficult journey to be part of, but it will haunt you for days after and, in a strange little way, make you thankful for what you have.