Directed by Jim Mickle (2010)
Reviewed by Mat, added on May 13 2011
Jim Mickle’s Stake Land is a good movie. It’s hard to not make a good post-apocalyptic movie. The setting itself has a built in appeal to most viewers. The idea that civilization as we know it has been obliterated and there is this driving will to survive and rebuild, or even just to exist, has a natural attraction to people. Maybe because we are so curious to see what it would be like to be thrust into something so outside of our normal day-to-day comfort zone (we all feel some apocalyptic event plausibly could happen). Or maybe, as the now infamous quote goes, some of us just want to see the world burn….and then watch the subsequent misery :)
As with most post-apocalyptic films, the story is pretty simple and revolves around a small group of survivors trying to make their way to some hope filled location. The main character is a dude by the name of Martin (a Romero nod there?) who watches as his family is slaughtered by vampires. A grizzled hunter who goes by the name Mister shows up and saves him and together, the two begin a journey to New Eden, a supposed safe haven. Along the way, Mister takes out various vampires (using their teeth as currency in the various towns) and assorted scum, including a couple of douchebags who have been raping a nun. Mister dispatches them and the nun joins them in their journey. Unfortunately, one of the men killed is the son of Jebedia, leader of a crazed religious cult called that believes the vampire plague is a deserving punishment from God on the unbelievers. Jebedia and his followers become the main antagonists throughout the movie. Along the way, Martin and Mister pick up a young, and very pregnant, Danielle Harris and continue on their path to New Eden until the inevitable confrontation with Jebedia.
One criticism that could be leveled at Stake Land is that, man, it’s really not all that original. As I was watching it, a plethora of inspirations filled my head: Last Man on Earth, The Road, Book of Eli, even the Fallout games. I can see the argument of someone criticizing this movie as unoriginal. But I would counter by saying that Stake Land is an excellent example of taking genre motifs that have been done a thousand times, throwing them together and doing them well. Sometimes we overvalue the ideal of “being original”. There is something to be said about a movie that just does what it does extremely effectively, and Stake Land certainly hits that mark as a post-apocalyptic film. The vampires, which are done very well, makeup wise, and abide by Old School Rules (staked in the heart, sunlight kills them, etc.) have a definite “zombie aesthetic”. They look like genuine monsters and are an effective update of the I Am Legend “virus turns people into vampire/zombie monster thingies” shtick. The film just looks great on all accounts. The cinematography is appropriately depressing, the fx excellent (hard to see how this isn’t nominated for a Splatcademy Award next year), and the direction is controlled: understated when it needs to be, frenetic when it has to be.
But what makes Stake Land work are the characters. Post-apocalyptic movies only go so far as the characters will take an audience. Nick Damici is stellar as Mister, the quiet, yet stoic vampire hunter. Connor Paolo as Martin, Kelly McGillis, and Danielle Harris all turn in performances that make you genuinely care about them, which makes some of the things that happen to them all the more impactful. It’s just well acted all around. If I were going to make some criticisms of this film it would be that it feels things sort of bounce around. Characters come and go, then show up randomly to move certain portions of the story forward. It felt a little disjointed. The ending of the film is bound to cause some debate. I don’t want to spoil it but it ends sort of abruptly, with a new character introduced in the last act. The ending is left ambiguous, which I like, but it does feel sort of awkward that the film ends on the note that it does. Again, I don’t want to spoil it, so it’s tough to describe it. You’ll have to see it for yourself, but I did get a “that’s it? huh?” sort of vibe. Oh, and c’mon, Stake Land? Dumb name. They could have had a much cooler title than that for this movie.
But those are minor gripes. Stake Land is a fantastic film and certainly one that any horror fan should stick at the top of their “Must See” list this year. It continues a long line of really excellent genre films that have come out this year. 2011 is looking really great for horror!