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