Stars: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris
|This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.|
Even though this is a vampire picture, I was surprised to find that it started with vampires, or at least a vampire hunter, as the religious subtext is so prominent that I expected to find that the genre side grew out of it. The writers, Jim Mickle (who also directed) and Nick Damici (who stars as that pseudonymous anti-hero), had served the same roles on an even lower budget post-apocalyptic movie in 2006. Mulberry Street, which also avoided zombies in favour of mutant ratmen, cost only $60,000 but garnered a host of great reviews from the genre press. Eager to work together again, they thought up a web series that they could shoot on weekends for cheap and wrote forty eight-minute scripts that actor turned producer Larry Fessenden suggested should be turned into a feature instead. He strongly affected the development of the tone too, pressing Mickle to give it a heart and emphasise feelings of isolation over bloodshed. 'It's a road movie and a western,' he told the New York Times. 'It should never be horror for horror's sake.'
What came much later was the religious angle which infects the film like a virus. Initially they just aimed for something that felt real, rather than make another movie with what Mickle described to Crave Online as 'super over-stylized over-choreographed zombie vampire action'. They also wanted a post-9/11 feel as they remembered the way that everyone came together then rather than bicker the way they tended to do in such situations on film, but perhaps inevitably, 'the extremists come along and fuck it up.' I found the religious angle stronger than anything here because it grounds this approach. With the country they know gone, people team up to try to rebuild what they know and love and they often make a pretty good go of it, but there's always someone out there who takes it in another direction. We hear old time gospel music before we even see a visual in this movie, so it's no surprise to find so many religious references dotted throughout and religious extremists hijacking the plot just as they try to hijack the survivors in it.
We're given no explanation of why this apocalypse came about, thrown into this new world just as Martin is. All he and Mister know is to keep travelling north, to escape the chaos that the southern states turned into. 'Cults spread like wildfire,' Martin tells us, 'waiting for the messiah, but he never came. Death came instead. He came with teeth.' North is where the possibly mythical New Eden is supposed to be, which is the only real hope they can cling to. They avoid the cities, of course, taking the back roads and spending time with the clumps of civilisation which banded together to survive. For a while they fall into a routine. They keep on northward. They pick up supplies wherever they can find them. Mister trains Martin as best he can, both combat training and survival skills. Each is as important as the other in this post-apocalyptic landscape where you can starve as easily as you can fall prey to a vampire. In fact, the numbers we see suggest that the former is even more likely than the latter.
And always there's that religious undercurrent. The shots of abandoned America are evocative ones, the location scout perhaps doing as important work as the set decorator. I'd guess that the latter is the most responsible for the little notes and signs we see everywhere, like one reading 'And God Smote the World Asunder' that decorates a corpse hanging by a roadside, but they're so quintessentially southern gothic that many could well be real. In another time, so would the corpses. We see a lot of religious people and religious signs. We see religious communities, which are usually seen in a more cynical light than those comprised of people banding together for the common good. The cynicism is encapsulated into Martin's observation that, 'In desperate times, false Gods abound. People put their faith in the loudest preacher and hope they're right.' Here, in a horror take on a western road movie, that extends to the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist militia which sees vampires as sent by God to cleanse the world for them.
Not everything is solid. Some scenes are too obviously set up, like the little girl vampire hiding upstairs in a house they stay in. Some of the effects work is obvious, such as a bloody cross carved into a back to be a homing beacon for vampires clearly not breaking the skin in the slightest. The camerawork is strong for the most part, with a lot of good composition of frame, but occasionally it aims for a gritty feel with some handheld footage that actually distracts instead of helps. Unfortunately, this tends to be married to dark scenes, which become doubly awkward, though flares do help. The pace is slow, deliberately so but with the inevitably depressing tone and the sadness inherent in Martin's narration, even when he's aiming at hopeful, it can be a little much. Strangely, the second half is slower than the first, though perhaps this is partly due to the progression of their trek north and the focusing of the dangers around them from wider, open ones to narrower, more defined ones. Some of these dangers are not surprising at all.
For the most part though, this is a capable, thoughtful and well grounded attempt to recount the zombie apocalypse without zombies and, in a major way, not even as a horror movie. The vampires aren't really villains, they're just obstacles. The real villains are the religious nutjobs, who manipulate a disaster into their own personal deliverance and, in so doing, only serve to make survival even tougher for the decent folk who try to salvage something of civilisation for the future. Change the vampires into aliens and it's a sci-fi movie; into Apaches and it would be a straight western; into sharks and you'd have a SyFy Channel Original. It's really a drama surrounding the universal quest for a better life, with a strong anti-religious undercurrent. This makes it a clear analogy for modern America, even more so than on its release four years ago. The good news for those of us living here is that there is always hope; the bad is that happy endings aren't always what we expect. Respect is due for that observation as much as for the film.
Eric Kohn - A Kingmaker in the Realm of Cheapie Horror (New York Times)
Fred Topel - Stake Land's Jim Mickle Talks Vampires (Crave Online)