After garnering a lot of positive buzz from festivals, Jim Mickle’s vampire apocalypse movie has hit UK screens. We’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic landscapes recently, not to mention fanged monsters, so we were curious to see if Stake Land would live up to the hype.
Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) has been travelling North across America with the gruff Mister (Nick Damici) since his parents were killed by vampires. But as they move through the wasteland America has become, the biggest threat is quickly revealed to be a crazed Christian cult that believes the vampire plague is heaven sent.
Although it’s made up of familiar elements, Jim Mickle and star/co-writer Damici have managed to give their film an identity all of its own. It owes a big debt to The Road, which is often a result of the similar landscape that the characters pass through, as well as other postapocalypticas. It has a definite air of a Western about it when the characters go to a saloon run by art-house horror figurehead Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter), who also serves as the film’s producer. And, perhaps most of all, it’s indebted to George A. Romero, as it’s easy to forget that the monsters are vampires, not zombies.
But Stake Land manages to forge its own little niche in the genre. There’s a pervasive air of melancholy as Martin and Mister move from town to town, knowing that whatever normality they find is not going to last. The filmmakers didn’t have much of a budget to work with but they’ve made the most of what they had. The locations are well-chosen and the photography is excellent. There are a couple of slight missteps early on but Mickle quickly hits a good rhythm. He’s also a dab hand with set-pieces, as the sound of traps jangling sets us on edge as much as the characters.
The lack of familiar faces helps get us into Stake Land. Paolo and Damici have a good chemistry as the former learns to face hardship and the latter slowly lowers his guard. Kelly McGillis (where has she been since Top Gun and The Accused?), Danielle Harris (who’s appeared in four Halloween movies), and Sean Nelson (The Taking of Pelham 123) are solid as a motherly nun, a friendly mother-to be, and an ex-marine respectively.
When Stake Land leans too hard on the evil Christian cult subplot things start to wobble. But when it moves at its own pace, and lets its characters develop, this horror road movie proves to be a wholly worthwhile endeavour. It’ll be too bloody for the mainstream but it’s a breath of fresh air for horror fans.
Verdict: A melancholy, slow-burning new take on a well-trodden subgenre.