Claiming intermediate ground between high-gloss and gratuitous gore, Jim Mickle’scompelling vampire saga Stake Land is a gritty, low-key hybrid of horror film and road movie that aptly demonstrates the stylistic flexibility of this undying genre.
Audiences attuned to the filmmakers’ focus on character development and indirect social commentary will find plenty to digest, although fright fanatics might wish for more explicit bloodletting. While a Good Friday opening may appear more coincidental than topical, even strategic counter-programming is unlikely to offer as strong a return as DVD and VOD.
In a post-disaster, near-future America, society has fractured following the outbreak of an epidemic that causes human carriers to become vampires. With the government disbanded, survivors are left to fend for themselves in an eerily depopulated landscape.
A quick, efficient set-up introduces teenage protagonist and narrator Martin (Connor Paolo), orphaned when a marauding vampire kills his parents and infant sibling. Rescued by the vampire hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici), the pair begins a long-distance quest across the Northeastern U.S. to reach the sanctuary of plague-free New Eden, located in Canada.
Their journey in a beat-up convertible takes them through a rural no-man’s-land interspersed with abandoned settlements and temporary safe havens full of refugees, as they skirt major cities and towns to avoid the worst of the infestation. During moments of respite Mister trains Martin in close combat and the sole reliable methods of killing vampires – driving a wooden stake through their chests or skulls.
Bloodthirsty fiends are never far off however, forcing Mister to dispatch them with aggravated menace whenever they attack. They also need to avoid the Brethren, a violent and fanatical religious cult, led by the vengeful Jebedia (Michael Cerveris). As their group grows and progress slows with the addition of Sister Anna (Kelly McGillis), a disillusioned nun, and Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant young woman desperate to reach New Eden before giving birth, Martin and Mister are forced to make tormented choices in their quest for survival.
Making the most of a modest budget, director and co-writer Mickle profitably focuses on establishing character and the film’s overall haunted tone rather than simply conjuring gratuitous mayhem. An effective economy of style and the faded color scheme admirably suit this stripped-down aesthetic. The lead performances are solid, despite somewhat generic characterizations, and all-importantly, the vampires’ acting, makeup and costuming are persuasive, even if they appear nearly as dim-witted as a typical zombie.
Stake Land’s trenchant worldview, both dystopian and completely rational, shows more affinity with the likes of The Road, 28 Days Later and Night of the Living Dead than it does with movies inclined to romanticize or demonize vampires. The message that America, with all of its social ills and conflicts, is a nation devouring itself seems particularly appropriate as budget battles and culture wars rage on unabated.
Mickle’s movie won the Midnight Madness Audience Award at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
Opens: April 22 New York, April 29 Los Angeles
Production companies: Glass Eye Pix and Belladonna Productions
Cast: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Sean Nelson, Michael Cerveris, Larry Fessenden
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenwriters: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Producers: Adam Folk, Brent Kunkle, Peter Phok, Larry Fessenden
Executive producers: Hamza Ali, Mike B. Ali, Greg Newman
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Music: Jeff Grace
Production designer: Daniel Kersting
Costume designer: Liz Vastola
Editor: Jim Mickle
No rating, 96 minutes