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Stake Land (2011)
16th Jun 11
A teenage boy, orphaned by a vampire apocalypse that has all but destroyed America, is trained up on the road by a super hard sonofabitch known only as Mister. Nice and simple.
Jim Mickle and his Mulberry Street co-writer/star Nick Damici reteam for some post-apocalyptic Americana with Stake Land. Mulberry Street was a pretty impressive little number that put its characters to the forefront and mixed 28 Days Later with Do The Right Thing to good if scruffy effect (it was made for chump change after all). While that film definitely showed promise, the leap forward Mickle has made with his follow up is really quite spectacular and should solidify his place amongst the world’s best young filmmakers. Yes it’s another vampire movie but the hype surrounding Stake Land is to be trusted; this is a really, really good vampire movie and the best part is there’s no gimmick. Unless playing it straight is considered a gimmick nowadays and by god is this straight.
Farm boy Martin and badass vampire killer Mister meet in an incredibly tense opening which results in the death by tooth of the boy’s parents. Mister then takes the boy under his wing and the story from then is essentially a combo of road movie, fang flick and training montage as the two encounter friends, freaks, enemies and vamps (the scripts preferred term) on their way across a desolate landscape to a supposed haven called New Eden. It really is as simple as that and that’s key to Stake Lands success as Mickle resists the urge to tart things up with new spins on vampire lore or go the buddy bromance route with Martin and Mister’s relationship. This is particularly impressive as most directors would worry their audience might get bored of two men driving for days without any sparky back and forth about girls and sports metaphors, but Mickle clearly has enough faith in his actors and backdrop that very little chat is required. Replacing the banter we get a good old fashioned surrogate father and son vibe.
And what a father figure Mister makes. Between them Mickle and Damici have created the toughest and coolest monster killer ever. He’s tough as boots and silent as a Caramac, with a hardness level that would make Wolverine give up his seat for him in a bar. Killing vamps, rapists and crazy Christians with ruthless sadistic efficiency Mister has jumped ahead of Ash, Buffy, Blade and Jack Crow (John Carpenter’s Underrated Vampires to give it it’s full title) to become the hero you most want on your side when faeces and fan unite. He verges on the cliché by being so alpha male but Damici imbues the character with a sadness that makes you think he might just be wearing those sunglasses because he’s a little bit shy. No tears from the big man though and no humorous touches like finding out he has a really girly name or a debilitating fear of mice. That would just be unmanly and actually even more clichéd.
Connor Paolo somehow manages to hold his own against Damici’s tour de force of testosterone with a quiet, charming and rather cute performance. You can tell Martin is thrilled / a little scared to be partnered up with Mister and we’re right there with him. It’s his character arc that stands in lieu of a plot as the timid teenager learns to drive the perfect stake and is given a harsh unforgiving look at human nature under pressure. The cast of survivors both naughty and nice are all good too with standouts including Danielle Harris (who might, shock horror, actually be turning into a pretty good actor!) as a lone mother to be, Michael Cerveris as a terrifying cult leader and Kelly McGillis as a nun whose own little story within the film probably deserves a movie of it’s own (or at least a short anyway). Fans will be pleased to learn McGillis has aged with a grace that is depressingly rare in former Hollywood pin ups. She looks every bit her 54 years without any sign of botox or “work” and is now a very beautiful middle aged woman (her Top Gun co-star meanwhile looks creepily like his former self). It’s good acting all round but they’re really just part of the tapestry.
Mood is everything in Stake Land. I’m not sure if Tom Waits ever did a song about vampires but if he had and that song was also a movie then this is it. There are no expansive shots of deserted metropolis, just lovingly lensed country roads, farms and dirty dead end towns that would probably be deserted anyway. The lost America Mickle presents to us looks glorious; merciless, bleak, haunting and occasionally somewhat inviting (if it wasn’t for the risk of getting your jugular ripped out). He takes his sweet time exploring it too and it’s easy to forget sometimes you’re watching a vampire movie and not the missing link between Easy Rider and There Will Be Blood. Having a Man With No Name type figure leading proceedings hammers home the Western attitude. Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul have done beautiful work here that stands as one of the coolest looking modern horrors. It’s filmmaking on a budget where you really don’t notice the lack of big money shots and makes one wonder what wonders this team might achieve with an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend at a hundredth the cost of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 abomination.
This is slowburn stuff for sure but Mickle hasn’t forgotten to bring the scary. The vamps are intimidating, vicious and feral creatures. A hybrid of the infected from 28 Days Later (he clearly digs that one) and the bloodsuckers from 30 Days of Night, they are creepy, agile, single-minded and hungry (30 Nights Later, anyone?). Some very suspenseful set pieces include an execution in the forest, a surprise discovery in an attic and a brief moment of levity that’s invaded by “Vamp Bombs” (the best phrase i could come up with to describe vampires dropped from a helicopter to attack folk. yes this actually happens). These are frightening and surprising scenes expertly handled that work all the better for the leisurely pace that surrounds them.
Things get a bit messy in the third act with one conflict echoing the kind of fanged action junk the rest of it seems to work against and the “meet someone / lose someone” plot rhythm does get a little repetitive. The coda retains the dignity somewhat but the fumbles do prevent the jump from really good to classic genre piece.
As you’ve probably worked out, originality isn’t Stake Land’s strong suit but it has a great atmosphere, solid scares, believable and tragic characters as well as the best double hard bastard this side of Dirty Harry. Plenty of blood flows too and the film also has a lot of heart pumping that blood. Patient vampire fans will lap this one up so if you are one and also happen to be a fan of shows like Deadwood or Carnivale then I heartily recommend a blind buy. If Mickle and Damici keep this game up we could be looking at a cinematic partnership to rival Raimi and Campbell or Scorsese and De Niro. It’ll be very interesting to see what the two come up with next and expectation is now very high. Let’s just hope they leave that copy of 28 Days Later on the shelf.