In a US overrun by a vampire plague, a young man named Martin (Paolo) is saved from becoming a vampire smoothy by the enigmatic Mister (Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Left an orphan by the vampire attack and with nowhere to go Martin becomes an understudy to Mister, a driven vampire hunter. Travelling north to Canada in search of New Eden, a refuge for the still warm blooded that may be a myth.
Stake Land may be a vampire film, but with its bleak tone and imagery of a depopulated US it owes a great debt to George A Romero’s zombie films. The vampires of Stake Land are not sexy, cultured, or in possession of great dress sense. They are feral, vicious creatures, more like the infected of 28 Days Later than the erudite monsters derived from Stoker. For all that the creatures have superior strength, athletic abilities and fangs; this is in all other regards a zombie movie.
Viral vampire apocalypse narratives are not uncommon in fiction – for example Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s pulpy The Strain/The Fall, Justin Cronin’s epic The Passage, and of course Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the daddy of them all – but have been less common in film. With clearly limited resources Stake Land does a far better job of creating a convincing post apocalyptic world than the mega-budget Francis Lawrence version of I Am Legend. Mickle’s film manages this by very carefully choosing locations in rural heartland America, and avoiding the urban sprawl more common in films of this type.
As well as modelling itself in the zombie film, Stake Land is also a road movie. Very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, the film builds a vision of a devastated America out of junkyards, disused factories, abandoned gas stations and diners. Martin and Mister’s episodic journey brings them into contact with other survivors, including McGillis’ nun Sister, with whom the shy and damaged Martin forms a bond. They come across isolated communities trying to stay human where Mister drinks, whores and trades extracted vampire fangs like a prospector bartering with gold nuggets. They also have a run in with a group of religious zealots who believe that the vampire plague is God’s judgment and are intent on helping it spread. This group and their leader Jebadia Loven (Cerueris) act as the films real antagonists.
As the surly Mister accumulates strays like Martin and Sister, he is reminiscent of Eastwood’s Josey Wales from The Outlaw Josey Wales. Indeed this is a neo-western as much as it is a zombie film, or road movie. But where Josey Wales had a rich civil war back-story, Mister has none. This is equally true of the other characters: we know Sister is a nun because she is first seen wearing a nun’s habit; later they meet a former soldier and a pregnant girl. Little is communicated or discussed about what path has brought the characters to the point where they first appear.
This lack of back-story makes for a film that can at times be rather unengaging, something not helped by the unremittingly bleak tone and lugubrious score. However among the cast Kelly McGillis delivers a standout performance as Sister, investing her selfless character with weight and pathos. Connor Paolo is also good as Martin, making his teen survivor convincingly damaged by his experiences. Where most equivalent characters in this sort of film are wisecracking geeks (like Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland) Martin is shell-shocked and introverted.
Director Mickle stages some excellent action scenes, including a standout set piece which sees vampires disrupt a hoedown in an extremely novel fashion. The film is violent, but sits perfectly comfortably in its 15 rating with most of the damage done to vampires who bleed oily black blood. While Stake Land doesn’t really present anything new, it is very well put together. For those tired of the emo vamps of the Twilight franchise or The Vampire Diaries, this will be a suitably bleak and savage alternative. Personally I like my vampires to be a bit more conversational and have better sartorial style than the hissing grotesques on display here, but Stake Land should play well to most horror fans.