Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Road Trip, Rogue Vampire Hunter Style

Going into Stake Land, there was a pile of reasons why my expectations were higher than Miley Cyrus at a backyard barbeque held at Cheech Marin’s casa. Amongst them:
-Director Jim Mickle and actor/cowriter Nick Damici’s previous outing, Mulberry Street, was an impressively refreshing low budget horror that used a standard premise--vampirish zombies chewing through New York City--and made it into something truly new, with a multi-aged cast and hauntingly effective portrait of post-9/11 Manhattan.

-The fact that it’s a post-apocalyptic survival tale, something that never fails to rock my world (even when directed by the humorless Michael Haneke)
-Proven history: The last time I watched a movie starring a Gossip Girl star for this site, the result was the beyond magnificent Drive-Thru

Quick Plot: As a plague of vampirism spreads through the world, human survivors get by with whatever tools they choose to trade, be it guns, shantytown politics, or crazy religious cult gang membership pent on worshipping monsters and raping nuns. Eking out existence in the south is Martin (Connor Paolo), an orphaned teenager who watched his parents and baby sibling get eaten and has since been learning under the tutelage of Mister (Damici), a badass vampire hunter who smokes and sleeps his way through the makeshift communities. Eventually, they collect a few more traveling teammates, including the aforementioned nun Sister (Kelly McGillis), the ex-soldier Willie (Sean Nelson) and the sunnily pregnant Belle (genre queen Danielle Harris).

So yes, this is a film that opens with a savage vampire zombie chewing on an infant. It’s actually a strong way to begin, since Stake Land is indeed a brutal and dark ride that digs into the worst of both monsters and mankind. Besides baby-eating (sorry; I know it’s not funny, but it also kind of is) there are not-so-subtle hints towards sexual slavery, domestic terrorism, and slain children, all of which is handled with the kind of weight they need.
Stake Land is essentially a road movie set after the apocalypse, a sort of genre take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with more, well, vampires. As is common for many a serious-minded horror film, it quickly reveals that it’s man rather than monster that plays the real villain in life. Like Mulberry Street, there’s some not-so-deeply buried social commentary that never overtakes the action. The government has given up, leaving some citizens to sympathetically form communities and others to turn world-wide disaster into their own hedonistic utopia. 
Most notable is Stake Land’s portrayal of religion, something that’s done with far more evenhandedness than you might expect. Yes, the major bad guys are racist and misogynist zealots (led by Broadway powerhouse Michael Cerveris) who force their hateful beliefs on the country through violence, but the film seems to strive for a balance with other nods that point to faith as a comfort. McGillis' Sister is a solid force, a woman who offers the flip side of faith as something that breeds kindness and sympathy. Too often films like these end up painting religion as the true evil of the world through broad and stereotypical strokes or on the flip side, end up as weird exercises in Christian entrapment (see I Am Legend). Stake Land wisely avoids either fatal misstep.

And really that's just one of many things I absolutely loved about this film. The performances are all quite good, with each actor lending the right balance of battle-torn weariness with a subtle ray of hope. Harris brightens up every scene she's in, while Damici offers outstanding presence with very little dialogue. As the everyman lead, Connor Paolo is surprisingly effective, never overplaying the role but maintaining the center as a boy coming of age with the right balance of innocence and maturity. While I would normally see character narration as unnecessary and distracting, it works well in Stake Land, never overstepping the action or telling us anything we already know. Would the film work without it? Most likely, but the lines lend a certain gravity that always reminds us what world we're now living (and dying) in. 
High Points
It’s a testament to Stake Land that the actual vampires are far less important than the rest of the narrative, but they’re still something to be acknowledged. Considering Mulberry Street’s main weakness was its iffy execution of its rat-like zombies, allow me to give a nod to the vampiric creations here, especially with their different styles based on time of infection

Low Points
While I didn’t need any backstory regarding what began the plague, it was a tad frustrating to realize that I had no idea how the virus even worked in terms of contagion
Lessons Learned
No man should begin his vampire hunting career without proper armor and headgear
When choosing one's vehicle for vampire hunting in the post-apocalypse, always consider the mechanics of the trunk

In the post-apocalypse, a round of square dancing is considered more appealing than a vanilla ice cream cone
Soap Box Special
You may, as I did, experience a mild shock when you realize that the 50something nun is played by Witness and Top Gun hottie Kelly McGillis. Yes, seeing an actress primarily known for her work three decades ago now looking all of her 54 years is initially surprising, but I've been even more astounded by how many Interwebbers are citing her look in this film as 'old and ugly.' First of all, she's playing a nun barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, meaning her Botox sessions and salon appointments have probably been canceled indefinitely. Secondly, her face is still quite stunning, offering plenty of warmth and depth considering she most often has to act without words. Most importantly, she looks absolutely fine for a woman in her 50s, though by 'fine' I mean 'what an actual woman in her 50s should look like.' And people wonder why actresses keep drinking virgins' blood at plastic surgeons' offices.

Unlike some people...
I’d been hearing about Stake Land for the past year or so, as it’s made quite a dent in the horror community. To me, the film most certainly deserves its indie gem reputation. It works as a monster movie, with plenty of effective action-heavy vampire attacks, and it absolutely soars as an apocalyptic road trip hybrid. The DVD includes two commentaries, while the Blu Ray and 2-disc Special Edition are loaded with a making-of, Q&A, and seven character prequels (also viewable on youtube). Though some of my fellow bloggers have been unimpressed, I found Stake Land to be well worth a viewing and even, if you’re feeling financially frisky or just plain wild, a blind buy. 

Settle down now.


  1. Kelly McGillis. THAT's why I recognized the name.

  2. Great review! This sits easily in my top five of the year. The story and characters are fleshed out so well, and there are some things in the film that had never even been done before (****SPOILERS**** The helicopter drop off scene)

    Brilliant flick and Mister is one of the most bad ass memorable characters since Snake Plissken. However, every character is awesome, either easy to love or easy to hate. And yes, I too, did a double take when I realized that the nun was Kelly McGillis.

  3. I'm so glad this officially debuted in 2011 because now I know I have something for my own best-of too! And yes, the helicopter drop-off was badass and tragic. I'm so looking forward to what Mickle and Damici do next.

    And yes, double take but not horror!...right?

  4. Nice write up, Emily. Sam and I just watched this last night. It didn't hold our attention. I get everything you're saying and I didn't hate it, but I think we weren't in the mood for something like this. Same with the much touted WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. Too bleak for me at the moment. I should probably come back with another state of mind at a later date. :)

  5. Thanks Jenn! I can see how this is a film for a VERY specific mood. It's slow, quiet, and downbeat, so definitely not the DVD to pop in when you're just looking for a good time. So I guess the next time you're feeling too happy and need something to bring you down a few notches, give it another go!

  6. Thanks for the link Emily!

    My main point of contention is that I didn't feel anything for any of the characters. There just wasn't enough character development to get me to latch on to them and their situation. Sure the boy came of age a bit so to speak. But the derivative narrative which was overly drawn out about finding one's purpose, lot in life, yadda yadda only detracted from his on screen actions. Why did we need the constant narrative? As such, the slim characterizations, for me, were just that and when the shiteth hitteth the faneth, I just simply didn't care.

    And don't even get me started on the overly droning, 'Let's heighten EVERY scene' with it score. It became repetitious to the point of ad naseum.

    And and the ending really left me with one big resounding thud. I thought some sort of pay off would have been the saving grace.

  7. See, I felt I knew everything I needed to know about these people because when zombies or plagues or vampires hit the world, all that really matters about who we are is how we act in those moments. I felt I knew these people well enough just from that.

    And normally, I totally hate narration. And yes, it wasn't necessarily at all in this case but it just didn't bother me this time. I feel like occasionally it said stuff we got, but it was used sparingly in a way that worked...for me.

    I didn't notice the music. But that is me.

    And weirdly I liked the ending for the fact that it didn't quite take the typical route. Sure, a 10 minute wind-down doesn't really seem like it should work, but I just found it refreshing in its hopefulness.

    Different strokes, different folks. I still heart you.

  8. Glad you liked this Emily. There's an honesty and humanity behind the characters in Mickle/Dimici's work that I find very unique, believable, and at times, quite poignant. I also look forward to their next film as the first two were so good. For me, most of the P/A stuff in recent years has been wildly disappointing, unimaginative and/or pretentious. It's nice to see talented people not phoning it in for a paycheck or going egomaniacal ala Costner, Smith, et al, and turning a decent story into mindless junk. I tip my hat to Dark Sky Films and Glass Eye Pix yet again as they seem to keep consistently producing intelligent, artistic and entertaining stuff with only modest means.

    Oh, and Kelly McGillis can drop by my place for drinks anytime. We're about the same age and she looks fine to me.

  9. So glad to hear someone grooving on the McGillis! I was SHOCKED at how some people--mostly men--are just tearing her look apart. She's 54! And looks FINE!

    And I absolutely love when I find these kinds of new directors or filmmaking teams improving with each film. It's how I feel about Maurice Devereaux (End of the Line) and Christopher Smith, and I think Damici/Mickle are absolutely a team to watch. Listening to the commentary really cemented a lot of that for me. They make some really great points about screenwriting and I love that even though the script is obviously somewhat tailored to Damici, the pair totally understand when his character should and should not be center. There's a huge level of maturity in these two and I'm so glad to see it improving thus far.