Blu Ray Review: Stake Land

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MSRP 34.98
STUDIO Dark Sky Films
• 2 Feature Length Cast and Crew Commentaries
1. Jim Mickle, Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Larry Fessenden, Brent Knuckle
2. Jim Mickle, Peter Phok, Adam Folk, Ryan Samul, Graham Reznick, Jeff Grace
• Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land by Eric Stanze
• Character Prequels: 7 Short Films from Directors Larry Fessenden, Danielle Harris, Glenn Mcquaid, JT Petty, Graham Reznick
• Video Diaries by Jim Mickle Pre-Production – StoryBoards – Visual FX – Post-Production – Toronto International Film Festival Premiere and Q&A

The Pitch

America has fallen. A vampiric scourge sweeps the nation, turning brother on brother and parent on child as the blood-hungry beasts take deeper and deeper hold upon the land. It’s hard for the survivors to know whether to be more afraid of the creatures themselves or the violent religious groups that have sprung up in response, but there is clearly only one choice, fight or die.

We are in looking for Twinkies. I don’t really know why.

The Humans

Jim MIckle (Writer/Director) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Dannielle Harris

The Nutshell

The Walking Dead with vampires instead of zombies and sexier girls.

The Lowdown

Stop me if you heard this before. The world has been taken over by zombies/vampires/computers/cheerleaders, and a group of strangers band together only to find out the humans are just as deadly and most often more evil than the monster uprising. Probably the biggest original part of this film is the vampires. They are as grimey as zombies, but surprising damage resistant and the longer they have been turned the harder it is to break the breastbone.

Stake Land built quite a following before I saw it, winning the Midnight Madness award at the Toronto Film Fest and doing a tour of the festival circuit. I watched it a second time for my review, and enjoyed it more the second time around. It has a gritty quality that gives it an edge that it unfortunately needs.

I said I enjoyed it more the second time around, but I really felt let down the first time I saw it. I was expecting something special to live up to the hype when I first sat down to watch it. It started off with promise. It shocked and did so very quickly. The first set of victims we see include an infant, and when the camera finds the vampire, the vamp is wedged into some rafters and lets the dead baby fall to the ground. Not too much later the stumble upon a nun who has been raped and abused. These two things alone set up a rough and tough movie, but then we run into the big disease known as normality.

Window shopping.

The humans have a hope of reaching somewhere in the North where the vampires are too scared to go because they have lizard blood? Along the way, their tight nit family grows as they add anyone who can’t make it on their own. Their names are some of the most unoriginal I have ever heard and could even lead you to believe that the end of civilization was decades ago. The big tough guy is named Mister, the nun is Sister, the pregnant teenager is Belle and the token black guy is Willie. Yes, he was the token along with a token old black woman, otherwise this is a white future. I had a hard time believing that names were so horribly lame. Did all the intelligent people get infected by the vampire virus?

Surprisingly, for a low budget horror film, the performances are very good. I don’t know much about the two leads, Dimici and Paolo, but both characters portrayed their parts well. Dimici has a bad ass demeanor he carries the whole film that relates him to an offspring from the Expendables cast, except with a lot less muscle. He never flinches against the vamps and is clearly the alpha male of the group. Paolo struck me as a very similar character to Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland. As a teenager, probably 14 or 15, he not only has to cope with some very serious scary shit, but also is confused about girls and doesn’t even know how to drive. His character grows throughout the film from hesitant and meek to full fledged vamp slayer by the end, even though a frail slayer. The two leads kept the mentor/father figure/older brother relationship going which again drew non-comedic similarities between Zombieland.

In the near future, everyone shops at rednecks R’ us.

I love Dannielle Harris, and will always credit her with eternally corrupting my image of Santa Claus to a crayon drawn picture of Satan Claws (The Last Boyscout). Anything she is in becomes instantly worth a watch in my eyes, and even though she sticks mostly to genre films, I think she is a strong enough actress to attempt anything. She plays the most sympathetic character in the film, a pregnant young girl. Once again, never revealing the age of the character, she appears to be early 20s at most and maybe even a teenager. Her lines are few and far between, but her emotions show as her condition threatens to slow the group and puts them at risk.

Kelly McGillis also puts a very challenging performance forward as a wayward nun who is force slay vamps and accept the evil that men do. She has transitioned well from 80s heroine into the motherly type mature role and plays a very effective matriarch. Sean Nelson plays, get this, a soldier returned from the middle east. Even though the only one with military training, he is the only one to get disposed of completely off screen, and his character screams token. He has the least screen time of the family and the least amount of words, so he did great with his limited exposure.

The direction was very good, but not great. The pacing left a lot to be desired, starting off at a high point, but the continuous let the guard down then run for your life became monotonous to the point of losing impact. This and the retread ideas are the two biggest failures of the film. It never gets the escalation it could. Instead it suffers from building too many mole hills into mountains to the point when a mountain presents itself we see a mole hill. This is very unfortunate, as there was a big bad that deserved to be treated as such. By the time we figure out how bad ass he really is, the confrontation is over and we are off to the final resolution. This falls on the directing, but Mickle also turned a low budget horror film into a high budget look with solid performances, so while weak on pacing and escalation he exceeded almost everywhere else.

The camera work is very well done. There are quite a few interesting shots throughout the film. The main standout of the camera work though is the capturing of the apocalyptic desolation. Filmed in nowhere Pennsylvania, very similar to the area I grew up in, they took redneck decorations and used them to convincingly convey the end of modern civilization.

Did I ever tell you that getting confused with zombies is a real pain in my neck?

Stake Land is better than your average low budget horror film. It is worth a watch, but you have to stave your expectations if you haven’t seen it. It lacks for the big showdown it deserved, and a lot of the concepts within are unoriginal, and most of them don’t do anything to top the source material. The vampire resilience is the greatest original take within the film, though rarely do we see this concept expanded during the run time.

The Package

Stake Land comes with a significant amount of supplemental material. 7 short films to add a little more history to the lead characters. I really enjoyed the segments on Paolo and Harris, but the others played as little more than propaganda. Two feature length commentaries will tell you more about the cast and the making of the film than you will ever need to know, and they also include quite a range of production diaries, including pre and post production as well as a Q&A after the premiere in Toronto. The amount of special features and the quality transfer change my overall rating from an above average 3.0 to a very decent 3.5/


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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