Friday 15 August 2014

Stake Land (2010)

Director: Jim Mickle
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.
No, this isn't a vampire version of Zombieland, a much more prominent film with a much bigger budget that was released the year before. However there are similarities if we ignore the tone and the money. At $625,000, this didn't cost much more than the rounding error introduced if I cited Zombieland as costing $24m instead of $23.6m, while the tone is utterly serious, with no Bill Murray cameo, no Twinkie search and no David Letterman-esque list of rules. Otherwise, it might feel familiar, as the plot has a young man taken under the wing of a pseudonymous anti-hero experienced in the art of hunting monsters, so they can travel through the remnants of America in search of somewhere safe where they can live free of the plague that's taken down the nation. On the road, they encounter a number of other survivors, good and bad, who shape their journey. Zombieland would feel like a spoof of Stake Land, if only it hadn't arrived first, while its more serious twin, The Walking Dead, didn't launch until a month after this film.

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.
First we're introduced to the little picture. Martin, a telling name for a lead character in a vampire movie, is a young man who lives with his parents who are massacred by a vampire shortly into the apocalypse, even as the radio is explaining what's coming and they're preparing to escape it. He's saved by Mister, a passing vampire hunter who lends a hand. It shrugs off a pitchfork through the neck, a shotgun blast and a pounding by a car bonnet. It doesn't survive the stake that Martin pounds into its heart though. It's one heck of a coming of age moment for Martin, who then has to witness his father ask Mister to save him as the last words before he's taken down too. It's a bloody, horrific and traumatising wake-up call, one that's emphasised by the training opportunity that Mister gives him as we build to the opening title. He traps a vampire in the boot of his car, then dresses Martin up in American football armour and gives him a spear to defend himself. 'Welcome to Stake Land, kid,' he tells him as he opens the boot.

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.
When the religious subtext reaches the point where a pair of these Brotherhood nutjobs attempt to rape a nun, we can't help but believe that it's no longer a subtext, it's the text. Vampires are merely a means to tell it. This nun, known only as Sister, is a key player in the film, even as she flits peripherally through it. She escapes her would be rapists when Mister kills them both without warning. Unfortunately, one of the pair turns out to be the son of Jebedia Loven, leader of the Brotherhood, which prompts the redirection of their trek north for a while. The actress in the nun's habit is also the most famous name in the film, Nick Damici building his reputation here and Connor Paolo best known at this point for a supporting role in the TV show, Gossip Girl. Horror fans ought to recognise Danielle Harris, though Mickle knew her more from sitcoms. Sister, however, is played by Kelly McGillis, looking more like my mum than the hot chick in Top Gun. This marked her return to the big screen after nine years and she brought some power with her.

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.

Key sources:
Eric Kohn - A Kingmaker in the Realm of Cheapie Horror (New York Times)
Fred Topel - Stake Land's Jim Mickle Talks Vampires (Crave Online)

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