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Monday, October 24, 2011

Stake Land (2010) review


Nick Damici (Mister), Conner Paolo (Martin), Kelly McGillis (Sister), Michael Cerveris (Jebedia Loven), Danielle Harris (Belle)

Directed by Jim Mickle

The Short Version: This amazingly downbeat post apocalyptic vampire epic is the DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) of bloodsucker cinema. In addition to the requisite blood and gore, there's also an unusually strong element of characterization that's absent from most horror movies these days. This is a surprisingly adept low budget, yet polished picture that's the polar opposite of the mainstreams popular perception of vampire iconography and a film that injects fresh blood into tired veins.

An unexplained vampiric apocalypse descends upon the world spreading like wildfire till nothing remains but dead bodies and rubble. A lone hunter known only as Mister saves a young boy and teaches him how to survive the corpse-ridden wasteland amidst battles with murderous Christian cultists and bloodthirsty vampires. The two make a few friends on their journey to New Eden, what was once known as Canada; an area allegedly free of the undead scourge.

As much as bloodsucker cinema has wore out its welcome in recent years with the proverbial veins having been bled dry, along comes a bleak, downer of a movie that adds a fresh spin on familiar territory. This ambitious sanguinary saga from Jim Mickle is the DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) of the undead. Echoing Romero's hellish vision of a world gone mad, Mickle's movie covers an incredible amount of ground in addition to exploring an unusual amount of character interaction. The action and exposition is evenly spread out and it's all so well handled, it never becomes trite or boring.

Whereas seemingly every other horror movie these days is either a remake, a found footage flick, or a vampire movie, this one here takes an undying beast of folklore and makes it new with some ingenious ideas that borrow from past movies as well as making some socially relevant statements of its own. There's more than one variety of vampire with different methods of disposing of them. No one is off limits here; it's open season on infants, women and the elderly and the camera rarely avoids lingering on the aftermath letting the viewer know that the odds of survival for anyone in the cast are relatively small.

There's a religious subtext here as well which clashes with a slight political undercurrent. In recent years, the governmental dissolution of church and state has become more noticeable as Christianity, or anything related to god is slowly evaporating from society much to the alarm of those with a strong faith in a higher power (there's even a sign that says 'God Bless Right America'!). In the film, there's an ever growing cult of psychotic "Christians" by the name of 'The Brotherhood'. These crazed cultists pander to the mindless, vicious vampires by supplying them with "food". The Brotherhood use the creatures to contribute to the continued collapse and destruction of the remnants of civilization by dropping them via helicopter onto the remaining pockets of survivors who devoutly cling to what they once knew as normality.

Just as the current administration continuously defames, or chops away at America's core of Christian beliefs, this twisted offshoot returns the favor by a literal destruction of the nations government; itself in a different form of decline and moral decay. Religion, or its role in this depiction of society's death throes, is envisioned as just as much in a state of disintegration as the breakdown of civilization. Christianity has been perverted by the "inmates" who now "run the asylum" so to speak. It's also suggested by their twisted leader that this bloodsucking plague was sent by god. One woman, only referred to as Sister (played by an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis), is the embodiment of the last remnants of what could be surmised as a dying breed--the devout disciple of Christ. In this new world, god has seemingly forsaken man, yet Sister blindly, if ever so faithfully clings to her beliefs in the hope that there is still a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. However, in Mickle's maniacal, depressing wasteland, there's no room for the faithful; only the survival of the fittest.

The films true ending--as ambiguous as it is--comes about 15 minutes before the movie actually ends. After a square off with a "new" menace, Martin "grows up" so to speak and he and Mister's 'father & son' relationship ends. After enduring so much strife and struggle over the course of the film, Martin has finally spread his wings and is ready to leave the nest. The angle with The Brotherhood offers up a good deal of potential and is explored to such a degree, that these evil "crusaders for Christ" become just as formidable a presence as the vampires. There's also a hint of a third obstacle awaiting our rag tag band of wanderers once they reach New Eden--if they manage to get their alive. The cold northern air is said to stave off the nocturnal blood drinkers, but our non-merry band are warned of cannibals populating these areas. We never see them and outside of the mention, the flesh eaters are never mentioned again.

Possibly the single most amazing thing about STAKE LAND is that it's directed by the same man who helmed the atrocious MULBERRY STREET (2006), an horrendously executed movie with a passing similarity to this one only not nearly as polished. The melancholic music by Jeff Grace fits well with the impending hopelessness that maintains its presence till the closing moments. From there, it's a question mark as to what awaits our scant few survivors upon finally reaching New Eden (Canada). The possibility for a sequel is there and one hopes that should a sequel surface, it's just as thought provoking on a storytelling level as this breath of fresh earth happens to be.

This review is representative of the Dark Sky 2 disc set


Dr Blood said...

Good review. Obviously you liked it more than me but I've seen so many films that there's not much that I find original anymore. I liked that it was serious and didn't turn out to be a vampire comedy. Jim Mickle still has a lot to learn as a writer/director although he certainly knows how to set things up.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Dr. Blood. I honestly wasn't expecting much from this after buying it on whim with a few other titles. I'm glad I bought it, too. And yes, I agree, I'm glad there's no comedy whatsoever. I do like my horror to be more doom & gloom and this film definitely delivers on that. I haven't watched them, but there's seven short films on the second disc that apparently fleshes out the story more.

Maynard Morrissey said...

wonderful review!
Saw it at the Slash Filmfestival last month and was completely blown away. One of the most impressive post-apocalyptic movies AND one of the most interesting vampire-themed movies of the last 10-15 years, or so

venoms5 said...

For whatever reason, I glossed over this one. I do think I skimmed over your write up, Harry, but it being a new horror movie, I seemed to have instantly "forgotten" about it. I loved it! Great film and possibly the best new horror film I've seen this year. All the more shocking that it was made by the guy that did MULBERRY STREET. That movie was awful, imo. I gave the DVD away of that one.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Yeah, you're right. Mulberry Street could have been interesting but it ended up as just another boring and lame After Dark flick.

It's shocking how amazing Stake Land is, compared to Mulberry.

venoms5 said...

Some people actually enjoy MULBERRY STREET. I don't see it, but others evidently see something in it they like. I couldn't finish it and my girlfriend couldn't either and i gave the DVD to her, lol.

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