Jim Mickle shot his vamp-apocalypse with the Red-One hi-def camera and the resulting image has that gorgeous clarity and depth, near and far ground, throughout. Little things like distant clap-board messages, flickering twigs and leaves and the drop-off to streams and gorges that are mostly hidden from view are clearly and vividly drawn. The great thing about such imagery, and this way of capturing it, is how damn realistic it can seem at times. Without a doubt, the landscape shots we see as the band of protagonists make their way through the countryside have a visual validity that is very close to putting you right there alongside them. As our heroes progress into the mountains, you will be checking the carpet for twigs and leaves.
Detail in this AVC 2.39:1 image is frequently exceptional. Faces, clothing, material and surrounding texture are hugely acute. Middle-ground information is at a premium and background features are presented with believable depth and delineation. Beads of sweat on a clan-member's shaved skull, rivulets of blood down a face, pore-texture and finite whiskerage and bruising are all revealed with stunning clarity. Some shots may appear soft, but this is inherent to the source photography.
Contrast is fine, with nice deep blacks and excellent highlights during the daytime sequences. Shadow-play is strongly defined, but there may be some slight crushing taking place during the heavier night-time sequences. There is a variety of hues to the sky as the party make their way further and further north, the image quite majestically capturing the shades and depth of the overcast wilderness. The palette alternates between rich and livid colours for the undead and their deeds, and a naturally desaturated, dry-baked vogue for the seasonal aspects of the landscape. In either camp, the image is excellently drawn and vivid with authenticity.
We have no DNR or edge enhancement to speak of, and with only a very slight amount of aliasing, and no banding or smearing or obvious signs of compression, Stake Land lfrequently ooks amazing on Blu-ray and gets a very strong 8, nearly 9, out of 10.
The packaging may state that the disc carries a DD 5.1 track. It doesn't. This is lossless, through and through.
Stake Land, to me, is a very ambient experience.
It’s most emphatic and lingering quality, audio-wise, is its score from Jeff Grace. Now, as I’ve already said, I’m not a fan of what he has delivered here, although it does perfectly fit the mood of the film. But the clarity and presence of his music is excellent. Whether you opt for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track or the uncompressed 2.0 mix, the score folds and floats around the proceedings with a haunting and hypnotic power. His jarring “stingers” have plenty of impact and the mix, by and large, does very well with his unsettling and melancholy music.
But the surround option is definitely the way to go.
The sub gets to play with a couple of the more percussive set-pieces, but this is not a film that goes in for the explosive side of things. Surround channels get plenty of activity. We hear insects and natural ambience, the scampering of the undead as they stalk their dinner, the pattering of a downpour, the rattle of tin-cans that have been set up as early warning systems, vehicles moving front to back. There is a sequence involving a helicopter that puts the thing directly above you and then moves it around, the rotors thundering across the soundscape. Bodily mayhem is also well handled, with bullet hits, arrow-thunks, knocks, thumps and blows all fetching up the appropriate weight and solidity, but this is not a massively bombastic or action-packed sort of track. The pervading mood is sombre, and the audio mix caters well for this approach.
Overall, this is a solid and reasonably well-detailed track that delivers the punchier, more aggressive goods when it needs to, but remains insidiously evocative throughout.
We get two commentaries, both of which feature Jim Mickle. The first one is moderated by producer Larry Fessenden, and features actor/writer Nick Damici and actor Paolo Connor as well as another producer in Brent Kunkle. The second places Mickle in the company of a couple of different producers, composer Jeff Grace and both the DOP and the sound designer. Naturally the second track is will be the more technical, whilst the first will surely rely more upon ancedotes and thematic insight. And I’m sure that the ensemble get to grips with a wide range of topics regarding the production of the film, but I must be painfully honest here and tell you that I didn’t want to know about any of it. Having struggled to get through a film that, to all intents and purposes, had my name all over it, I simply didn’t want to hear about, or see any more of it. Stake Land is very, very clearly a well-intentioned film, but it is also an extraordinarily derivative one that failed to grip me and, indeed, lost me after the first quarter or so. So, I'm sorry but I simply couldn't sit through its makers’ reminiscences.
There is a massive hour-long making-of, entitled “Going For The Throat”, that is a rambling, unstructured affair composed of behind the scenes footage capturing the film, and its makers, as both come together. Vastly unpromotional and purely warts 'n' all, this is a raw chronicle of how Stake Land came to be.
In 48 minutes of Video Diaries, we learn more about the production via storyboards, camera-tests, the casting and rehearsals, as well as the visual fx and scoring. In this smorgasbord of background, we also get a Q & A session and footage from the Toronto International Film Festival premier.
But, perhaps most intriguingly and cleverly, the disc also contains a series of specially created character back-stories for all of the main cast, revealing how they came to arrive at the point when we meet them in the film. All the actors return for these segments, with full music, FX and location work. This is a nice touch and very evocative. Each vignette can be played individually, or with a Play All option. All together, the series runs for around half and hour. What I will say, however, is that as cool as this stuff is, it has clearly been inspired by the animated side stories found on the I Am Legend release, a film to which Stake Land owes a considerable debt.
For fans of the film, this is an excellent package that boasts a terrific transfer and a hefty dollop of supplemental material. The inclusion of those seven mini-movie prologues is certainly cool and the big making-of is sure to delight those who enjoy fly-on-the-wall production chronicles.
But the film itself is something of a letdown. Glowing festival accolades or not, Stake Land is massively derivative, damningly repetitive and resoundingly dull and dreary. It so wants to have the action and guts of your basic zombie-yarn and to combine them with the power and mythical melancholy of The Road. Sadly, it doesn't succeed. But this doesn't mean that the performances aren't good, because, in fact, they are more than decent. However, when the appearance of Kelly McGillis is one of the most profound shocks that the film has, an on-the-hoof undead flick like this is doing something fundamentally wrong.
With a snoozy-woozy score from the otherwise reliable Jeff Grace, patchy moments of meandering carnage and a singular lack of momentum, Stake Land is, at best, a missed opportunity. And, at worst, just another un-elaborate addition to the never-ending cross-polluted genre of the undead apocalypse. Now, there's nothing wrong with adding more vampire/zombie movies to the bloody pot as far as I'm concerned. Just so long as they're not boring.
And I'm afraid that Stake Land is. So I won't be, ahem, dining there again.
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