Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews Stake Land
Stake Land is an indie vampire movie that is actually worth a watch - and that's saying something, considering how flooded the vampire sub-genre has become in recent years.
The movie is an ultra low-budget flick featuring some hammy performances, but it also manages to weave an interesting (if not slightly cliched) story and present us with some interesting characters worth following. It also features some great imagery, captured along the backroads of the American countryside.
The premise is this: Vampires have overrun America and the human population has been severely dwindled, with "civilization" reduced to clusters of Wild West-style towns. Enter Martin (Connor Paolo), a young teenage boy whose family is attacked by a bloodsucker the night they were set to leave their home to escape the oncoming vampire onslaught. Martin of course survives, aided by the mysterious vampire hunter known only as "Mister" (Nick Damici). Mister takes the orphaned Martin under his wing, trains him, and eventually the two set out on the road, traveling from The South up North toward the prophesied safe haven across the boarder in Canada (insert Canada vs. America jokes here).
Along the way Mister and Martin encounter other travelers, such as a Nun (Top Gun star Kelly McGillis), a pregnant Bar Maid (Halloween star Danielle Harris) and an ex-Marine (Sean Nelson). They also encounter threats at every turn, including the various bloodsuckers roaming the night, bandits, rapists, cannibals, and worst of all, a fanatical militant sect known at The Brethren, led by a maniacal extremist named Jebedia Loven (Micahel Cerveris, a.k.a. The Observer on Fringe).
Stake Land is basically a mashup between your standard vampire horror film and your standard road trip movie, but somehow this movie manages to avoid being so standard that it crosses into boredom. What keeps this indie film treading water is pretty much a combination of some smart direction by Jim Mickle, and a great cast of solid (if not well-known) actors who work well as an ensemble.
Veteran actor Nick Damici portrays "Mister" as a classic Clint Eastwood gunslinger - a hard man of no name and few words who kicks ass at the drop of a hat. While Mister is the most dynamic character to watch, Martin is really our window into this story, and Connor Paolo (who played the young version of Kevin Bacon's character in Mystic River) succeeds at his only real task: keeping Martin from coming off as annoying. As a boy forced to mature before he's ready, Martin has the same morbid curiosity about the crumbling world around him as we do. Martin's development over the course of the film - having to face serious ugliness and pain in a savage world - is also interesting to watch, thanks in large part to Paolo's competent handling of his role as leading man.
The supporting cast is also strong. I almost didn't recognize Kelly McGillis as the woman who stole Maverick's heart in Top Gun, but here she's just as effective, playing a Nun trying to hold on to her faith in the face of such unholiness. Her character comes and goes throughout the film, but commands real attention in the scenes that she's in. Danielle Harris is something of an icon on the indie horror circuit, and here she plays her usual spitfire character, this time complicated by the fact that she's also extremely vulnerable as a pregnant girl about to pop. Longtime character actor Sean Nelson gets little to work with, but is solid in the bits he does get.
Michael Cerveris gets to flaunt his Tony Award-winning theatrics, hamming it up as the maniacal Jebedia. For my part, I thought that Cerveris' character was the only aspect of the story that caused Stake Land to drag somewhat, mainly because Jebedia is a flat caricature that we've seen so many times before. He mainly distracted from the stronger plotline involving the Martin, Mister and their makeshift family, and the story ultimately reduces the character to being little more than cheap Deus ex Machina.
Unlike so many big-budget dystopian films these days, director Jim Mickle doesn't need CGI-rendered images of destroyed Metropolises to really invoke the bleak world he's trying to create. If nothing else, Stake Land's greatest accomplishment may be the landscapes and natural images shot in (I believe) the woodland areas of upstate New York, which Mickle uses to create his dystopian backdrop. Barren agriculture (naked trees) or old rusted infrastructure - bridges, abandoned factories, etc. - are the primary stages for the film's outdoor scenes, while small working-class towns serve as the last metropolises in this half-dead world. No matter what he's filming, Mickle is great about how he composes his shots, incorporating the architecture and agriculture at his disposal in a surprisingly artful way that gives the film greater levels of meaning. A good example of this is when Martin and Mister stop to camp in the hollowed bowels of an (actual) abandoned factory in the countryside; the image of the pair circled by the fire in the shadow of what was once mankind's symbol of prosperity is haunting and relevant. Mickle maximizes these sorts of naturally occurring resources, which is tenacity worthy of commendation.
The script for Stake Land was written by Mickle and Damici, but thankfully there's more doing than talking in the film. You won't find a lot of scenes where characters are reflecting on the profundity of their dystopian circumstances, and when there are "dramatic" moments that require more dialogue and/or exposition (Martin's voiceover narration or scenes with Jebediah) the movie isn't nearly as strong. But, as stated, thankfully there is less talking and more doing in this film.
Finally, we couldn't review a vampire movie without discussing the look of the vampires, right? In Stake Land the bloodsuckers are your classic breed - no sunlight, stake through the heart, etc. - though the film tries to twist the formula a bit by creating vamp sub-categories with their own strengths and weaknesses, which Mister teaches Martin about over the course of the movie. The makeup work is pretty much on the level with any episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but the film mostly employs quick shots of creatures tackling victims, combined with screams and chomping sounds to convey carnage. A helicopter in one scene is basically a light in the sky, wind effects and chopper rotor sound effects; it's a small-scale operation but it works for the most part.
In the end, Stake Land isn't the best indie vampire flick ever made - it doesn't do anything really new or revolutionary - but it's far from being the worst. Fans of the genre will likely enjoy this entry - though I doubt that many moviegoers beyond that limited circle will have interest in what Stake Land has to offer.
Stake Land will get a limited theatrical release and Video On Demand release on April 22, 2011. Check out the trailer below: