Theatrical Review: STAKE LAND
Playing out like a mash-up of ZOMBIELAND, THE ROAD, THE STAND, and THE KARATE KID, Jim Mickle’s STAKE LAND blends together vampires, a post-apocalyptic future, right-wing head cases, and mentorship with bite. Co-written by star Nick Damici and director Mickle, the indie doesn’t carve out a new road for the genre film, but it makes well-traveled paths seem much fresher.
Following young, orphaned Martin (Connor Paolo) and his de facto mentor (Damici), STAKE LAND presents a post-catastrophe America overrun by too many vampires and not nearly enough red-blooded humans left to battle them. As Martin learns the ropes of vampire-slaying from Damici’s singularly-named Mister, the pair make a run for safety, a journey made more complicated not by the vampires they come into contact with, but the other humans.
Any film that features a “monster” also involves a getting-to-know-you period of time to familiarize ourselves with the beasties and what they’re capable of doing. STAKE LAND’s vamps retain some classic traits – they’re bloodsuckers who burn in the sun, but Mickle and Damici’s vampires have more in common with traditional zombie tropes than they do with the slick, sexy look of the bloodsuckers that has become commonplace as of late. These vampires are hideous, pale-faced freaks who are somehow both agile and stupid (they can climb walls, but fail to distinguish between a blood-soaked toy and a real human). If you know what you’re facing, you know how to kill them, and that’s what Mister attempts to impart on young Martin, by way of some hard lessons and few training montages set to an eerie score that (almost) lulls us into a fairy tale stupor. And for a film with a smaller budget than most big screen vamp films theaters are inundated with lately, STAKE LAND looks crisp and clean, with some good-looking effects that make both the vampires and the violence look real and believable.
More than just some solid effects work, there are also some really inventive and memorable scenes within STAKE LAND, tight twists on genre expectations that jolt. That’s not to say that STAKE LAND is without some clichés, but Mickle and Damici seem to be quite well-versed in the genres they’re working within, allowing their clever bits to feel both organic and just plain smart. They’ve also thrown in enough of their own mythology and framework here – for instance, the film imagines that the new landscape is peppered with “lockdown towns” trying to scrape out a new existence, with vampire teeth as their common currency.
But STAKE LAND has much less to do with outrunning vicious vampires than it does with surviving the after-effects of a vague apocalypse that has turned America into a wasteland. There are not just vampires to fear and fight, but religious nuts, inclement weather, and food shortages. The film owes much more to its post-apocalyptic predecessors, as it’s infused with the sort of cold honesty that the best of them carry – the reality that, after awhile, survival is simply no longer appealing. Mister and Martin have an end point they’re steadily working towards – Canada’s New Eden, promised to be vampire-free – but it’s hard to believe that New Eden will be able to provide a true safe haven in a world gone mad. On a basic level, we want to see Martin and Mister succeed – and, as we’ve been built to believe, success means survival. But there’s so little left for them that Mickle’s film tempers all of its thin hope with an edge and a subtle sense of flat-out fatalism.
And all of that fear and fatalism is tied up in the real villains of the film. The presence of religion is clear in STAKE LAND. Much of the territory Mister and Martin pass through is in possession of The Brotherhood, a loose group of religious fanatics who follow the bare-bones teachings of Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a standard issue cult leader bent on consuming what’s left of the world. But there are also frequent shots of right-side signage spouting accusatory language (forced repentance and all that), the sudden appearance of a ruined nun (Kelly McGillis), and a young pregnant woman with no man at her side (Danielle Harris). There’s no God left in this world, he’s long since abandoned it, and its false prophets that threaten the tenuous faith of both Mister and Martin. STAKE LAND is worth a watch just to see the terrifying work of men, the vampires are just extra blood in the veins.