Stake Land (2010)
Connor Paolo (Martin), Nick Damici (Mister), Kelly McGillis (Sister), Michael Cerveris (Jebediah Loven), Danielle Harris (Belle), Sean Nelson (Willie), Larry Fessenden (Roadhouse Bartender)
“Call me Martin. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, things a boy shouldn’t see. But… I’m not a normal boy anymore, and it ain’t a normal world. ‘Get used to it’, that’s what Mister tells me. We live by his rules or we die. Or worse, we die and we come back. But let’s begin at the beginning. I was like any other kid: I had a family, I went to school, I didn’t believe in the boogey man. But then the world woke up to a nightmare. Months passed in a blur or days and nights. We traveled east and west, but always north away from death. We avoided the cities, Mister said they were hit the worst, hit the hardest in the beginning. As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington feel it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it and hope was abandoned. We were on our own now, Me and Mister, traveling through the ruined land. Pockets of civilization survived, towns locked down behind fences and guns holding the night away. Cults spread like wildfire across the southern states waitin’ for the messiah, but he never came. Death came instead and it came with teeth.” – Opening narration.
While the trio of director Jim Mickle, writer Nick Damici, and cinematographer Ryan Samul (responsible for Cold in July, We Are What We Are, and the Sundance series Hap & Leonard) arrived on the film-making scene in 2006 with Mulberry St., Stake Land was the movie that made horror fans sit up and take notice.
Stake Land depicts a world in which a virus has turned most of the world’s humans into vampires. Fortunately for the humans of this Earth, the vampires are dumb as shit and have no abilities beyond being a bit faster and more agile. Essentially, we’re dealing with zompires. Our main character is Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenage boy who loses his family and is taken in by the enigmatic Mister (Nick Damici). Mister promises to keep Martin safe and teach him how to live in this cruel new world.
Right off the bat, Stake Land shows its penchant for cruelty in killing off Martin’s mother, father, and infant sibling (that one’s pretty rough to watch) in the second scene. The film is fairly aimless; mostly just a series of short episodes involving Mister and Martin wandering from place to place, encountering vampires or pockets of survivors as they go. There is an ultimate goal, a safe haven called “New Eden” just across the Canadian border, but just what is so safe or special about New Eden is unclear and unspoken.
The movie can’t help but bear a similarity to 2009’s Zombieland, with Paolo and Damici standing in for Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. The difference is that Stake Land is devoid of comedy by design and there are no clear surrogates for Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, there are also human antagonists in addition to the vampires. So while the framework is very much Zombieland, the actual plot structure is more along the lines of Damnation Alley, with our characters running into some manner of significant confrontation at each stop along the way. Also, like Damnation Alley, the story is about the journey rather than the destination, which merely serves as an endpoint for the film.
The journey is about Martin adjusting to life in this new world. He grows in ability as the film progresses but he hesitates and chokes in the midst of trouble quite often. Martin is holding onto the world that was even though Mister keeps telling him to move on. Mister is trying to turn Martin into a stone-cold killer like himself, but Martin just can’t let go of who he was before. And if it was just the vampires, Martin might be alright, but it’s not. Spoilers follow until the next picture.
Martin and Mister happen upon a religious cult called The Brotherhood, led by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris). Loven and his ilk are as responsible for the downfall of humanity as the vampires. In the early days of the end they loaded vampires into plames and crashed them into Washington D.C., their interference was instrumental in the downfall of the U.S. government. Now they do a smaller version of this, crashing cars through the barriers of walled communities.
Loven captures Mister and Martin and attempts to kill Mister by leaving him out for the vampires. Martin escapes and finds Mister, they manage to capture Loven and leave him out for the vampires to kill. They escape and find civilization, deciding to celebrate their momentary victory until The Brotherhood begins dropping vampires onto a public gathering from a helicopter. Martin thinks about how quickly the situation went from something good to something awful with the cult’s intervention and this serves as a foreshadowing of the rest of the movie.
As Stake Land progresses, our duo gains a handful of companions: a nun called only Sister (Kelly McGillis), another survivor named Willie (Sean Nelson), and a pregnant young woman named Belle (Danielle Harris.) These people, along with Mister, form a sort of surrogate family for Martin. Things go well until they encounter a group of Berserkers (old vampires, harder to kill than the others) who kill Sister.
The remaining four escape from the Berserkers and find refuge in an old RV, but are slowly picked off by a smart vampire. It seems that Loven has somehow been turned with his mind intact and he’s enacting sadistic revenge on our heroes. He picks off Willie in the middle of the night and waits until Belle goes into labor and they have to stop to take her. He uses Belle as a trap and almost manages to kill Mister and Martin. Martin is forced to kill Belle, as she’s infected, and Mister is badly wounded. The two manage to press on and find a diner where a teenage girl has been holding off the vampires with a crossbow.
Mister leaves Martin and the girl after Martin casually kills a vampire. The two get together and drive to New Eden and the movie ends. The first time I saw this I thought maybe Mister had left Martin because he had finally succeeded in his mission of turning Martin into himself, but now I disagree with that. It seems that Mister left Martin because there’s nothing for him in New Eden, he’s set on wandering the wasteland and killing vampires because it’s all he can do anymore. Martin still has some of who he was before the end in him, but Mister is a creature wholly adapted to this new world and he couldn’t go back if he wanted to. Likely Mister will go back south and find another sorry soul to bring to New Eden and Martin will go back to a life of normalcy, such as it is.
Having now seen Mickle/Damici/Samul’s filmography in full, it has been interesting watching them grow individually and together. As their sophomore film, Stake Land shows leaps and bounds of improvement in the four years since Mulberry St. Ryan Samul has grown the most, his camera work between the two films has changed so much as to look like the work of two entirely different people. Mickle seems to have a better grip on the action and the story is stronger but, as I said above, the movie is aimless.
And I don’t really know how one would improve the story to be less meandering. The characters have a goal and to make it any more serious would be to make it too homogenized. I don’t want a plot where our characters are trying to save the world by getting to a certain location to kill a “master vampire” or some such bullshit, but maybe involving the cultists more from the outset could help. Mickle is a good director and Nick Damici is a good actor but the writing leaves something to be desired. I’m not saying that Mickle/Damici are bad writers, I very much enjoy the stories they tell, but it’s really no coincidence that the duo’s two strongest projects have been adaptations of Joe R. Lansdale books.
Still, I wouldn’t call Stake Land a bad movie by any stretch. The characters are underdeveloped but it’s by design; much like Zombieland the question of who these people were before the end of the world has no bearing on the plot. The characters are likable without being very fleshed out and their deaths have an emotional impact. The action is wonderfully choreographed, especially the scenes with Mister fighting vampires. The movement is clear and the fighting visceral and raw. The vampires are genuinely frightening and the gore effects are top notch and look to be entirely practical. There are a few small uses of CG in the movie but none of them are gore effects.
Stake Land is a stripped down film to be sure, showing signs of filmmakers who are still growing into their craft. It’s low budget and it shows it, avoiding large set-pieces and elaborate sets. Most of the film takes place in the woods and most of the action involves only a handful of vampires if that. But this simplicity makes Stake Land lean and effective, to make it bigger might rob it of its charm. It doesn’t quite all come together to be a great film, but the movie has a solid ending and the journey is entertaining as hell.
LAST MINUTE UPDATE: Apparently a sequel (directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen rather than Jim Mickle but written by Nick Damici) has already finished shooting. The film, called The Stakelander, picks up years after the events of this film and concerns Martin (Connor Paolo reprising his role) seeking out Mister (Nick Damici, also returning) to help him get revenge on someone (presumably The Brotherhood) who has destroyed his home. Who knows if it will be any good, but I’m interested in returning to this world and seeing where our two main characters are years later. IMDb.com has listed the film’s premiere date as October 31, 2016.
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