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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stake Land: Putting Teeth Back Into the Vampire Genre

stake land poster

"It's JUST like Zombieland but it's not funny, and instead of zombies it's vampires that are causing everyone so much grief!"

Barf.

I don't know how many fucking times I read that description whenever reading a review for Jim Mickle's latest film, Stake Land. The two films (Zombieland and Stake Land) have NEVER had ANYTHING to do with one another, and I believe that should have been obvious (especially to horror fans) right from the film's first teaser trailer that was released before Zombieland had even come out. Sure, there are some similarities with the post apocalyptic setting, something that was never done in any other film outside of Zombieland. The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, Phantasm II, The Road Warrior, 28 Days/Weeks Later, Night of the Comet, Carriers, etc. None of those films were set in a time when the world was riddled with either zombies, vampires, infected, crazy people or even some concoction of the four. Is the name Stake Land is a bad choice? Well, it's not a great movie title by any stretch, but the film was initially conceived around the same time as Zombieland, so the comparisons are simply ridiculous if you ask me, especially when every Tom, Dick and Harry felt the need to make the exact same comparison when reviewing the film. 

Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Shit has been bothering me for months. Let me reign things back in here and get back on track now that I've probably offended someone I like...

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Directed and co-written by Jim Mickle - who made a nice little splash with his solid, original take on the zombie film with 2006's Mulberry StreetStake Land is set sometime after the world had become infected by a deadly virus. But this isn't your typical airborne type of contagion; instead, the deadly plague comes in the form of vampires. Without any back-story to how it all started, the vampires have quite easily taken over the planet, leaving few survivors behind and their victims to come back as their allies.  

Now, these vampires aren't the type of chiseled abs adorned hotties that make out with chicks and style their hair (You know, like me). Nope, these are vicious, man-eating vampires filled with aggression and a certain level of survival smarts and tactics. The idea of a plague by vampirism is a smart choice, as most of us are already aware of how vampires work and how they can turn people into fellow vampires. Therefore, there is no need to explain how the disease has spread; it's a part of the monsters mythos. Though, there are some things that separate the film from the by the book characteristics of vampires, one of them being that they seem to either have evolved or there are at least a few differing breeds of them with some being more powerful than others.  

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Stake Land follows a man simply known as Mister (co-writer, Nick Damici) and a teenager named Martin (Connor Paolo) who Mister befriends after saving his life from a vampire attack that left Martin's entire family dead.  Mister – who hates being referred to as Mr. Mister – is what you could call a badass motherfucker who is skilled in the ways of vampire slaying. He and Martin are traveling to Canada (which has been dubbed New Eden) which is supposedly a refuge free of vampires and filled with at least a small sense of normalcy.  

Not at all the most original of ideas in anyway. Regardless, I will always attest to the fact that originality is not an issue if a film can bring something to the idea. There is a reason why classic stories are classic stories. In the hands of the right filmmaker, a classic story can always be told well. That would most certainly be the case with Stake Land

Despite the lack of background - which is actually appreciated by myself - Stake Land is a cinematically poignant and deep film that resonates in its situation. Despite the vampiric elements, the circumstances feel real as do the characters. I found myself drawn to the people of Stake Land, as they are somewhat relatable as is the way in which they are dealing with their plight. The characters are who they are and they aren't filled with overly dramatic traits that would mean to alienate the audience or even themselves. I specifically enjoyed the subtle father son relationship between Mister and Martin that is vastly more enduring and somber than any single moment found in the highly overrated and often compared to, The Road. The emotional impact is better conveyed because it's not being forced upon the viewer; it happens naturally. 

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Stake Land is filled with very strong performances by all those involved, but the stand out in the film is certainly Nick Damici, who also stared in and co-wrote Mickle's Mulberry Street. What I love about Damici is the fact that he is a real person, a man's man, someone that you would find littering tough guy cinema of the '70s. He's a rarity in these cinematic times, and to see someone like him in a film such as Stake Land is simply awesome. I also must give credit to his character of Mister. He is a true tough guy, but he breaks the mold and never acts so tough that his exterior cannot be broken. Without hesitation, he is compassionate, sympathetic to others and is not at all selfish despite the fact that it could result in his own undoing. He isn't simply trying to selfishly survive, he is trying to fight back the evil that surrounds him.

Mickle has constructed a film that is technically nice to look at on what is supposedly a teeny-tiny budget ($625,000 from what I have read). Stake Land isn't some slick, blue hued vampire film that is overly stylized and hyperkinetic, nor is it a sepia toned apocalypse movie littered with slo-mo shots. It's a straightforward and nicely crafted piece of cinema, filled with wide landscape shots that convey the rural, vast and almost completely devoid of life world that Stake Land is set in. Between the character of Mister and the way in which Stake Land is filmed, it has almost has a Western sensibility to it.   

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In what is yet another case of the 'unoriginals', the whole 'people are so much worse than the monsters' commentary is in full effect here in Stake Land. It does work for the most part, but it is a tad over done and also feeds into a portion of the film that might be a point where it loses its footing a little. However, where the film does falter is minute and not nearly enough to affect my thoughts on the film as a whole. Which to me is a near perfectly made and very subdued modern horror/vampire film. There was a time when I was young and vampire films and the creatures themselves were some of my favorite things about horror. Therefore, I am incredibly ecstatic to have a film such as Stake Land come out. Stake Land shows us that the vampire can still be used in a way that is interesting, and proves yet again that the genre is alive and well. We just have to look outside the cinema to find it. 

10 comments:

  1. We're like bizarro twins as I just reviewed this recently too.

    http://jadedviewer.blogspot.com/2011/08/stake-land-review.html

    I liked it as well...sticks to the genre and for such a limited budget shows a nice post apocalypse at a good price.

    I wrote: Characters come first in Stake Land, with eerie scenes of a wrinkled and abandoned America coming in second and finally fight scenes coming in at bronze.

    Why can't all filmmakers think this way?

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  2. Ha ha, I was actually going to post mine last night but waited 'till today after I saw you posted yours! I did read your review and (was happy you didn't compare it to Zombieland!) agree with most everything you had said (especially the NOOOOOO!! in reference to Danielle Harris...how fucked up was that?!). However, I do like the slow moments, but I think that's just the Western fan in me.

    I agree especially about the characters coming first. You know what's great about the film? It is super low budget, so they played to the one thing they could control, the characters and how they are handled. With that said, they still made a film that does not, at all, look like a low budget film. It might not look like some big budget Hollywood flick, but it sure as hell looks like it had WAY more money behind it.

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  3. Phew, I did a review for this early in the month and am now pretty happy I made no comparisons to Zombieland, heh. I didn't even bother to read a review until after seeing it, and when I did come across those comparisons I kind of scratched my head as I didn't find that many similarities... at least not enough to say anything about it. When I think of Zombieland, I kind of think of Shaun of the Dead for Dummies, littered with dick and fart jokes, which is the last thing I think about when thinking of Stake Land.

    Terrific review. Pretty much touch base on every element that made me love this film.

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  4. Great review, Matt. I LOVE the sound of this and can't wait to see it. I think it played in Belfast briefly earlier in the year as part of a film festival, but I wasn't able to go and see it, for reasons that are too lame to even remember. My loss, it seems.

    It is true what you said about originality not being too much of an issue if a film can bring something unique and interesting to the idea. A couple of recent zombie films (La Horde and Rammbock) weren't particularly original - but the way in which they were presented made them feel fresh and quirky.

    Looking forward to checking out Stake Land!

    PS I liked your rant. It was like another rant I read once, but with vampires. ;)

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  5. Agreed with every word here. Preach on brothah Matt!

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  6. I really liked it apart from the last part, a little unnecessary for me but the film had already won me over by then, I will echo the character and acting praise, and no I can't understand the Zombieland thing either, other than the obvious of them having land in the title.

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  7. Sweet Jebus, I guess I'm still in the minority on this one within the blogosphere. Maybe I should give it another shot.

    For me, the lack of background and effective context was ultimately the film's undoing. When the shit hit the fan, I didn't care about them at all. Run of the mill, post apocalyptic fodder is all I viewed them as. Not a single one of them was interesting in the slightest.

    And it just felt way too long and drawn out: get into a skirmish with vamps, walk/drive on, meet someone else, skirmish again, rinse, repeat. The ending itself was just abrupt and totally unfulfilling.

    Can you tell I didn't dig it that much? :) Yes I appreciate the fact that vamps weren't painted as some euro trash or sparkly creatures. Aside from some great makeup work and a return to truly frightening creatures, this flick didn't do a whole lot else for me.

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  8. Robocop: It seems that almost every review I read, before and after seeing the movie, I would run into that comparison. It become painfully annoying by the tenth or so time! Making that comparison in a sort of tongue in cheek way would be totally fine, but that wasn’t the case with any of those specific reviews that I saw.

    I liked Zombieland, but I see no real reason to bring both of those films together for any other reason than the names are similar. If that’s the case, why didn’t everyone claim that Trick ’r Treat was kind of like Trick or Treat, but without Skippy, the heavy metal and it’s an anthology?! Now I’m getting fired up again!

    James: Damn you, Gracey!!

    I think you might really enjoy the film, James. I’m sure a DVD release isn’t too far off for you guys, and when you do see it I would love to hear, well, read, your thoughts.

    Both La Horde and Rammbock have been on my radar for some time, though I have heard mixed things about La Horde, but that doesn‘t change my desire to see it.

    Emily: I feel the need to pat my forehead free of the sweat I have built up! :)

    Hero: Yeah, it went into this territory that was kind of ridiculous, but it’s a brief scene and not so terrible that it took me completely out. Plus, there were other things going on that made the scene cool, which may have curbed the lameness, I suppose. It all just seemed a tad hokey for a film that was not in any way hokey. Still, like you, I was already in like Flynn.

    CTK: I read your review just before seeing the movie and was very surprised you hadn’t liked it, especially when it seems to be so well received all around.

    The way in which the film is structured was enjoyable for me as I do see it as a Western of sorts, and being a huge fan of that genre, I fully welcome that style of less is more story telling. I don’t know, something about it just worked for me, and it worked really well.

    I can see how the film is a bit repetitive, and while that didn‘t bother me, I can understand it be a little cumbersome for others. Especially if you aren’t feeling any sort of connection to any of the characters.

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  9. This just came in the mail! I will be back as soon as I watch it!
    *runs away*

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  10. Hurry up, Christine! Also, if the film came in your mail, you may want to clean out your mail box. HA!;)

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