So, it’s day 82. We’re not a kick in the balls away from our first quarter of the year. Frankly I’m stunned that I can still churn out this crap every damn day.
Better than I Am Legend.
It is the end of the world. A plague has all but wiped humanity off the map, and that plague is vampirism. But this is no sparkly Twi-shite vampirism or even the gorier but just as decadent Underworld variety. This is pure, animalistic savagery. A boy named Martin is helping his family pack the car to make a run for it when they are attacked. He is the only survivor thanks to the sudden intervention of a mysterious man who calls himself Mister. Mister takes Martin with him, training him to kill with stakes, blades and bow and arrow. Guns are next to useless. As they travel north to the fabled New Eden they pass through some rag-tag townships, pick up some other survivors, and cross paths with The Brotherhood – a roaming band of fundamentalists who consider this the foretold Apocalypse, and who don’t take kindly to outsiders. As if you hadn’t guessed by now, violence ensues.
With its post-apocalypse setting and savage, mindless antagonists, this movie bears closer resemblance to a Romeroesque zombie flick than a typical vampire tale. The end of times is well underway when the film starts; all the back story of this world is given in Martin’s narration*. As a consequence, everybody knows what they are up against. We don’t get any of those (usually) annoying sequences where someone has to explain exactly what is going on to some idiot who can’t believe what is right in front of them.
Director Jim Mickle wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s the Romero element, as I said before, but there is also a touch of The Outlaw Josey Wales about Mister. Here is a man, outwardly distant and without a family, who accidentally creates a new family from stragglers that he meets on his travels, due to his inability to avoid helping people in need. The bleak landscapes captured by dp Ryan Samul reminded me of such recent films as The Road and The Book Of Eli, but without that latter film’s bleached-out overexposed quality. I felt like I needed my sunglasses on just to sit through Eli. The way the vampire plague has destroyed civilisation – and the way the creatures themselves are shown – brings to mind I Am Legend; or at least what I Am Legend should have been.
Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the film with Mickle) plays the grizzled Mister as, ironically, a man of few words. It is his young co-star Connor Paolo who gets most of what few lines there are. This is his story, and Paolo sells it well, as we see Martin grow from a terrified kid to a man of courage under Mister’s tutelage. The pair are ably supported by rising Scream Queen Danielle Harris – star of both Adam (Frozen) Green’s Hatchet series and Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots – as the pregnant hitchhiker Belle and Kelly McGillis as the nun known only as Sister. Broadway star and Tony-winner Michael Cerveris (better known as The Observer from Fringe) is all kinds of creepy as Jebediah, leader of The Brotherhood and the chief baddie.
In years to come, Stake Land ought to be held alongside Near Dark by those who know these things as one of the landmark vampire films of its time. Mickle and Damici have created a complete, convincing world in which to tell this tale instead of just pretending that these creatures co-exist in ours. By having the characters stick to the back roads and small towns, avoiding the death-traps that the cities have become, they are able to do so much more with their limited budget. One neat example of spinning production design out of thin air is when The Brotherhood attack a town our merry band has stopped at for the night with one of their customary tricks. What they do is to capture a load of vamps out in the countryside then drop them into the towns from a helicopter. Of course this flick couldn’t afford a helicopter, so the sequence is played out with a wind machine, lots of dust, and a spotlight. It’s so effective that you don’t even notice the fact you never saw a chopper.
If you like horror films or post-apocalypse films and you haven’t yet seen this, do yourself a favour. Mickle and Damici’s next picture is slated to be a remake of the Mexican cannibal drama We Are What We Are, which ought to be interesting. With this and their first feature, the well-received zombies-in-New-York flick, Mulberry Street, the duo are carving out quite a niche for themselves. Pardon the pun.
*One of the special features on the DVD is a series of shorts, each devoted to one of the main characters, showing a little bit of history.