Starring: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris
Martin was a normal teenage boy before the country collapsed in an empty pit of economic and political disaster. A vampire epidemic has swept across what is left of the nation's abandoned towns and cities, and it's up to Mister, a death dealing, rogue vampire hunter, to get Martin safely north to Canada, the continent's New Eden.
I hadn’t seen Jim Mickle’s previous movie “Mulberry Street”. I had been put off by the DVD cover art depicting “hordes” of infected zombie types and helicopter gunships and the Renaming of the movie to the lurid and silly “Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street” (lame title, lame marketing) I was put right off it assuming that it was another low budget rubbish zombie movie that would bring back horrible memories of the David Warbeck movie “Ratman”. I was wrong. Yes, the make-up was a little ropey on occasion but Mickle edited the movie enough to hide the imperfections.
Stake Land on the other hand, at least online, had been marketed very well, with a clip from near the beginning of the movie that captures the essence of the movie.
This is no Twilight, although there is a little romance here and there. Vampires, in
are more zombie-like. The make-up reminds me of the possessed in Evil Dead, but without the fun white sclera contacts (impractical for The Evil Dead and would have been totally impractical in this production). The make-up is creepy and the sort that should have been used in I Am Legend (one of a few movies that Stake Land references but within its own style) instead of CGI characters. In fact, Mickle’s vampires go right back to the beginning of the mythology, before Stoker’s Dracula, referencing the old tales of corpse like attackers. Folklore tales of vampires from Eastern Europe described them as almost human or as bloated corpses. To say that these vampires are a substitute for zombies is unfair. Ironic, as George A Romero replaced vampires with zombies for his take on I Am Legend which became Night of the Living Dead. Anyway, I digress. This is a review of Stake Land not a history lesson.
Post apocalyptic movies, like vampire and zombie movies, have been very frequently put out. Do not let this deter you from seeing this movie. Stake Land rises up amongst its peers and is so much more than a combination of genre ideas. As a road movie, it shares some similarities to The Road. These are fairly throwaway and don’t make the movie appear to be plagiarising the story. We almost have a father and son relationship in the form of “Mister” played by Nick Damici, and Martin, played by Connor Paolo. After rescuing Martin from the vampires that have killed his family, Mister takes him on as a kind of apprentice and over the course of the movie they become almost father and son. Like the characters in The Road, the pair have to scavenge in abandoned houses that may or may not yield traps left by the undead. In some ways, I was reminded of the tone of Stephen King’s Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger.
Although not quite as deep as The Road, Stake Land addresses similar human issues like; how far do you go to protect your life and what is yours? Its depth is there to be enjoyed but doesn’t bog the film down in ceaseless despair as in some post-apocalyptic dramas. As in most films of this type, the threat is not just from a supernatural source. Typically, human beings prove just as dangerous as the vamps themselves. The story singles out the main human threat as coming from a religious group that are clearly a few cans short of a six-pack, but highly organised and controlling a few of the main roadways.
The journey of Mister and Martin is punctuated by a series of incidents that escalate as the movie progresses and they are caused by either the vamps or the Brotherhood. One of my favourite scenes could be one of my favourite scenes in any movie and it involves a Brotherhood initiative that is a twist and a surprise at one point in the film. I won’t give it away but it is well-executed.
Their first encounter with the Brotherhood involves the rescue of a Nun, called Sister, played by Kelly (Top Gun, The Accused) McGillis. I was a little shocked at this casting, as I hadn’t appreciated the passage of time since those two movies. She is wonderful in the role of Sister and brings much needed warmth to the picture.
Nick Damici, so good in Mulberry Street, plays Mister with understatement, but not enough to alienate the character and distance him from the audience. We see that tragedy has left its mark but also that he still cares deep down; glimpses of which are shown throughout the movie.
Connor Paolo is excellent as Martin. Clearly his experience, with nine films already in the can, has served him well. The narration falls a little short, and appears to be an afterthought. It reminded me a little of Harrison Ford’s bored narration in the original theatrical print of Blade Runner, but this doesn’t spoil the movie or Paolo’s performance.
The look of the movie is dreary and dull, on purpose, as if the world is being drained while the human population is being drained of their blood. Occasionally, a shot of the sky reveals the sun emerging from behind cloud, as if signifying that there is hope, however fleeting and brief. Jeff Grace’s score helps give the movie character and is very unlike the Zimmer clones being used constantly in bigger budgeted features.
My only real gripe is with the title. It misleads the audience into thinking that the movie is going to be similar to Zombieland. Whilst there is thematic similarities, in the journey, narration and developing relationships, they're both markedly different movies. There's very little in the way of humour in Stake Land and it works all the better for it. Zombieland is also, still a classic, in my view.
Stake Land deserves to be aired at far more theatres than it has been released at, in the UK. It’s true battle is with over the top CGI mega-budget extravaganzas like Green Lantern. Stake Land is one of my films of the year so far, and I reckon it'll take some beating.
9 out of 10 (Wayfarer)
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