Written by Mule
Stake Land (2010) directed by Jim Mickle and written by Mickle and Nick Damici is a vampire movie with a different flavour.
In a parallel and immediate now, disaster strikes and a pandemic hits the world. Vampires take over, for any given value of that when they actually don’t retain any higher brain function other than the basic predator-feeding instinct. That does not mean they are not extremely dangerous, because they certainly are.
This story centers around the young boy Martin (Connor Paolo) who survives the brutal attack on his family thanks to the timely arrival of Mister (Nick Damici). Mister takes Martin under his wing and brings him along on his search for “New Eden”, a purportedly safe haven where humanity has managed to get a toehold in this extremely post-apocalyptic landscape. It sounds fairly formulaic, I know, but the strange thing is that this tale manages to approach the story with enough sincerity that it becomes more than just the standard monster movie.
Martin’s voice-over does a lot in that regard, as does the musical score. It conveys a feeling of desolation that is reminiscent of The Road (2009). It happens to be vampires, but it could just as easily have been any other disaster striking on a global scale. On their travels Martin and Mister encounter good people, and bad, as is the standard formula. They save a nun, Sister Anna (Kelly McGillis), from rape and death at the hands of a religious cult that has risen up and established power under the guidance of the badly twisted Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris). They travel with Belle (Danielle Harris), a young pregnant woman they meet up with along the road in one of the beleaguered towns they pass through. They also travel with Willie (Sean Nelson), a soldier who was called home when the pandemic hit.
Mister is a very proficient vampire hunter, he knows how to kill the various kinds of vampire that crawl out of the woodwork and he teaches Martin in a very hands-on kind of way, pitting him against vampires he traps, shoving him to the fore and into the fray in a way that seems brutal, but necessary. Martin muses about it in his voice-over wondering where all Mister’s hate comes from, and it seems that is what fuels Mister more than anything.
It isn’t just the vampires that cause problems, but also people. The crazed religious sect that drops vampires on the small, heavily guarded communities, see the epidemic as a planned cleansing from a less than benevolent deity, and act accordingly. People in general show their worst and best traits under this kind of duress, and that’s the side of this particular apocalyptic tale that actually elevates it from the formulaic premise.
Mickel has managed to create an atmospheric, bleak traveling tale which combines the horrors of survival in this world where things are looking to eat you (and sometimes those things are just people) with a coming-of-age story arc for the young protagonist Martin. The landscape we travel through is depopulated and starting to show signs of decay. There are houses with signs painted on the walls (“one alive in basement”) and abandoned industrial buildings, roadblocks made of cars, and everywhere the presence of death is overwhelmingly, glaringly obvious in the vampires that lie staked and burned and shot, as well as the actual people that are getting killed, or are found dead everywhere Martin and Mister and their traveling companions go.
This is not the kind of movie where you should let yourself get too attached to any of the characters because the general survival rate isn’t all that stellar and the outlook even more grim all around. Still people adapt and overcome and that’s another aspect of this story. Martin adapts.
I really enjoy the level of attention to detail and the overall feel of the movie, as well as the terse dialogue and the fact that it’s played straight instead of giving the kind of tongue-in-cheek ironic winks to the audience that are so easy to succumb to in this genre. The landscape is very much a character in itself and the level of violence and bloodshed never seems gratuitous. The horror comes as much from the overall sense of exposure and vulnerability of the characters any- and everywhere they go as it does from the fact that the vampires are really nasty customers, fast and vicious and ugly to behold. Stake Land is an unexpected gem in this genre on par with Near Dark (1987) and it is certainly worth a viewing if you enjoy vampires or post-apocalyptic movies.