“As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington fell it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it, and hope was abandoned.”
It’s a grim and dark reality that Stake Land sets for us from the beginning. We’ve all seen enough of the post-apocalyptic zombie movies, and AMC is delivering it on a weekly basis with their excellent The Walking Dead. Still, that scenario has gotten to be a bit overused of late. Who really wants to see more zombies picking of the few remaining survivors of a crumbling world anyway? Okay, so I do. But I’m surprised that it’s taken this long before someone substituted vampires into this world and delivered the goods.
“Pockets of civilization survived. Towns locked behind fences and guns holding the night away. Cults spread like wildfire across the southern states. Waitin’ for the Messiah, but he never came. Death came instead, and it came with teeth.”
We meet Martin (Paolo), a boy who has just lost his parents to a group of vampires as they were packing the car to leave the city. He’s rescued by a quiet enigmatic man who just goes by the name of Mister (Damici). The two begin to work their way from Pennsylvania toward a place called New Eden. The promise is that there is a sanctuary from the plague of vampires that has pretty much destroyed all of society.
But the vampires are not the only threat the two must face. One cult in particular called The Brotherhood as grown out of a white supremacy group and is inflicting their will upon many of these small bundles of civilization. Their leader is Jebedia Loven (Cerveris) and when Mister kills a man trying to rape a nun (McGillis) Jebedia becomes obsessed with revenge. The would-be rapist was his son, and The Brotherhood consider the survivor women as community property necessary only for breeding the next civilization.
This film is a whole lot better than the package or synopsis lets on. It’s populated with compelling characters guided by quite extraordinary performances all the way around. It’s a film with incredibly limited dialog and not even as much action as you might expect or hope for. What it delivers in place of those traditional contrivances is wonderful atmosphere and an emotional journey that works even if you take away the horror or fantasy elements completely. This could just be a story about survival, and I believe you would find it equally as effective. Nick Damici isn’t a household name and might not even be on your radar unless you were a fan of the cult show The Black Donnellys. He’s an understated actor, at least here who manages to convey strength by saying and doing very little. He’s quite emotive without looking like he’s trying to emote. He provides a strong anchor here, to say the least. If you’ve only seen Connor Paolo on Gossip Girl, you haven’t seen him yet. Again, he has very little to say or do throughout most of the movie, but the performance is as strong as Damici provides. With Martin it’s almost amazing that it’s the same actor from beginning to end. At first he comes across as such a young kid. By the time the film ends, he has matured to a point that I swear he has gotten taller. Of course, he hasn’t, but he doesn’t strike me as the same character at all. It’s these dynamic changes in characterization that I find the very essence of quality acting. You really will question if this is indeed the same actor. It is.
The supporting cast includes horror staple Danielle Harris. She has more than established herself as one of the reigning queens of the genre. Her performance here is as laid-back as the others. She plays Belle, a young pregnant girl that they meet in a town bar. Martin takes a liking to her, and she joins them for a spell. Credit young director Jim Mickle for not overplaying those feelings. The temptation would be to offer a quick roll in the sack, but the emotional connection is played strictly in their normal interaction. No kiss. No sex. And guess what? We got it. Sean Nelson is actually a bit underused as Willie, who also joins the group for a time. All of these performances are checked quite strongly by Mickle, who is telling a story here and doesn’t feel the need to hit you over the head to tell it. Much of the narrative is supplied by Martin’s voiceovers. He’s quiet and almost unemotional as he tells us what happened. You get the sense of a guy who is mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the journey. His voice tells us he no longer has the energy to tell us passionately. He’s tired.
That’s not to say there aren’t some rather good action scenes. The vampires lumber and are mindless. The fact is they really are zombies who drink blood instead of eat flesh. Of course, a little flesh tearing is expected, and Mickle supplies it in generous enough quantities. The makeup effects are top-notch, and the production values look well beyond the limited budget the film was restricted to. Mickle makes the most of his locations, and it’s the journey that keeps this film on pace and moving forward.
Stake Land is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. I’d love to see this movie in high definition. The video presentation offers some sweet location shoots that are shot in such a way that it’s just ever so off. There’s not a lot of color here which is as it should be. There is some kind of effect used for the daytime sky that is pretty cool. It’s not quite cloud cover. It’s a perfect look for the movie Mickle is giving us here. The bit rate is high, so compression artifact is minimal, but not completely absent. Black levels are above average for a standard-definition image. Again, I’ll bet this thing would look awesome in HD. Credit a good production design team using little resources. I’m from the area in Pennsylvania where this was shot, and it captures an early fall day perfectly. Bummed that Dark Sky didn’t see fit to send the Blu-ray.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a wonderful addition to the atmosphere. The score is actually nothing short of brilliant. Like the character performances it is often understated. Sometimes it’s a simple but mournful piano piece that helps to cement the emotional power of the film. I’m reminded of that great end theme from the old Incredible Hulk television series.
There are a couple of crowded Audio Commentaries. Both include director Mickle. The tone is conversational, and you get a lot of grounded discussion about every aspect of the film. The cast reflect on their experiences, and the crew commentary gives us more technical background.
It’s hard not to compare this movie with Zombieland, and if you liked that film, you’ll probably dig this one. It’s in many ways the polar opposite of Zombieland, however. There aren’t any light moments here. This is a somber, ultra-realistic look at a pretty depressing world. Victories are fleeting, at best. But the circumstances certainly make the comparison legit. Mickle doesn’t explain how we got here, and frankly, I’m glad he didn’t. I have to watch a ton of indie horror movies in this job. This is one of those times when it was a joy all the way through. It’s the best vampire movie in years. It’s entertaining, emotional and visceral without having to be frantic. If you want to see small-budget horror at its very best, “Welcome to Stake Land, kid”.