Director: Jim Mickle
“I hate vamps.”
America has been laid waste by a plague of vampirism, giving rise to scattered pockets of humanity trying to survive the growing number of infected. When young Martin loses his parents in a vampire attack, he is rescued and taken under the wing of a hardened drifter known only as Mister. The two travel north toward ‘New Eden’, adding to their number while trying to survive both the vampires and a ruthless Christian cult, known as The Brotherhood, who believe the vampires are God’s instrument of Judgement.
Rejoice, for vampires are the bad guys again. No place for pale-faced, brooding teenagers or angst-ridden guys in long coats here. Just vampires the way they should be; ravenous, snarling animals who wouldn’t even know where their navel is, let alone want to spend hours gazing at it. It’s a mark of how far the vampire genre has drifted that a movie where they are actually monsters should be so refreshing. The second feature from director Mickle who, having started out as a Key Grip (you know, appears in all the credits and no-one knows what it is) gives hope to would-be directors everywhere, takes the vampire back to its parasitical roots.
Coming off like a cross between The Road and Zombieland, with all the gloom of the former and none of the humour of the latter, Stake Land is a rather bleak viewing experience. That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable, on the contrary, but its apocalyptic and violent landscape makes for a rather dark hour and forty minutes that some may find hard to equate with entertainment. Not being one of those ‘some’, of course, I enjoyed it. Much like The Road, it’s this bleakness that gives the rare moments of lightness in Stake Land such a power when they come; a smile, discovering a friend is still alive, a gift. Against such a backdrop of hopelessness and horror, such moments of humanity take on a greater resonance and Stake Land never loses sight of this fact.
Like many good horror movies, Stake Land shines a light on humanity and finds the horror from within as well as from without, its prime focus being on fundamentalist religion as represented by The Brotherhood. Religion and apocalypse are willing bedfellows and it is hinted at several times that The Brotherhood are largely responsible for the spread of the plague due to their penchant for dropping vampires into populated areas, thereby delivering God’s wrath. In this world, vampires are weapons of mass destruction and the terrorists’ weapon of choice. It’s an inspired twist.
Co-writer Damici turns in an understated performance as the taciturn Mister, a character who says little and gives away less. So much so, in fact, that as the movie ends we know as much about him as we did when the movie started. He’s tough, morally immutable and kills vampires. You need know nothing more about Mister, it seems, but the lack of growth or exploration may leave some feeling a little short-changed. Joining him along the way is an almost unrecognisable Kelly McGillis as a nun, Sister, who brings some balance by representing the best of religion and also provides an amusing rhyme with Mister.
Stake Land is a good addition to a genre that has long been suffering from tediously romanticised visions of its creature. Reclaimed from the teenage market, the vampire finds its teeth again. It’s brutal, violent and sometimes scary, but there is an honest, human heart beating at the centre of Stake Land which is more potent and more real than a thousand Twilights.