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Stake Land Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 31, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    Stake Land Review

    A post-apocalyptic world overrun with flesh-devouring vampires. Pockets of desperate humanity struggling to survive contact with each other, let alone the undead. A ragtag group of fugitives thrown together by circumstance and a common goal – to make it across the border into Canada and the promise of sanctuary in the New Eden. But between them and the promised land lies hundreds of miles of open country. If the vampires don't get them first … then the deranged cult members of the Brotherhood will. It's dog eat dog after the collapse of society and only the hardest, the toughest and those who are willing to do the unthinkable are going to stand a chance.

    It's Night of the Living Dead meets The Omega Man on a perilous journey down The Road, fending off The Walking Dead every step of the way.

    You've seen it all before, of course, but Stake Land – which has the sorry misfortune of sounding like a restaurant franchise – really tries to play it with poignancy and a true sense of the bleakness and inhumanity of the situation, should it ever actually transpire. It blends the comic-book mayhem of tussling with dead-heads with matter-of-fact performances from a clearly committed cast. The conflict between good and evil is played out amongst the surviving factions and although the picture is painted that once society has fallen all pretence of morality vanishes too, it also presents a distant ray of hope and a jaundiced optimism. It is bloody and violent, as any saga about the living dead nipping at your heels should be. We are asked to bond with a group of people that we probably wouldn't ordinarily like … and not to judge them or their actions. It is successful at depicting a melancholic aura of dread, anger and constant apprehension.

    It is also interminably boring.

    So boring, in fact, that it took me several sessions just to get through it … and I love this stuff, for God's sake!

    After around twenty minutes, you've pretty much got the measure of Stake Land and all it has to offer. Repetition is the name of the game here. Our heroes travel some way, kill a vamp or two, then reach a settlement for five minutes of R & R, travel some more, kill another couple of vamps, encounter bad people, blunder through, travel, kill vamps, meet more bad people … or even the same bad people as before … and on and on. And throughout all of this they meet other good people who tag along with them. But there is absolutely no momentum to any of this, and no drive, just one long sustained stretch with regular vamp-despatchings appearing like little bloody knots in an endless length of string. The melancholia and haunting sadness of The Road hangs heavily over the production, yet it is never able to attain the same shocking level of emotion. The ambient score from Jeff Grace (The House Of The Devil, Meek's Cutoff) shimmers, warbles and laments constantly as we hit the backroads on the interminable trek north, only coming to life during one or two savage encounters. The autumnal frieze that illustrates this odyssey is another profound cliché, recalling the overcast and chilly look of Dawn of the Dead's Pittsburgh as well as the nuclear winter of John Hillcoat's devastating adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's aforementioned travelogue into the last flicker of human warmth. Even Darabont's TV zombie-thon looks dusty, dry and environmentally lifeless despite it being set in the hazy summer. Besides the gaudy Everglades of Romero's Day Of The Dead, only Francis Lawrence managed to bring some colour to the aftermath of mankind biting the Big One in I Am Legend. Just once I'd like to see a modern zombie/vampire apocalypse set at the beach.

    Connor Paolo plays Martin (perhaps another homage to Romero, there), a teenager who survives the vamp-attack that destroys his family by throwing-in with a deadly drifter who proves to be a dab-hand at wasting the undead. Known only as Mister, this gypsy/samurai/stake-merchant, played with a combination of deadpan resilience and ruthless severity by Nick Damici, who co-wrote the film with director Jim Mickle, takes the boy under his blade-festooned wing and trains him in the art of killing what's already dead. Together they undertake the dangerous quest of getting to New Eden in cars that they find, or wandering on foot. En-route they save a nun from being raped, fall foul of the nasty shaven-headed and bonce-tattooed Christian Crazies, the Brotherhood, led by Michael Cerveris, and blunder from one rest-stop to another without getting shot or eaten. Martin goes through a warped rites-of-passage, Mister acting as his surrogate father – shades of Stephen King's vampire epic, 'Salem's Lot , here. We see this harrowing world mostly through his eyes, his education bathed in blood and his outlook hardened by the dangers he must continually face … but his character arc goes nowhere. Sundry females flit like ghosts into his world – a possible mother figure, a potential lover – but even if Paolo lets deeper emotions simmer in his eyes, Martin never once threatens to become truly human in any convincing way. Our lead protagonist even manages to combine the look of William Ragsdale’s Charlie Brewster from the original Fright Night with a hint of Lance Guest's Alex Rogan from The Last Starfighter, somehow encapsulating the vogue of the innocent teen caught between two worlds – the mundane and the fantastical - yet still essaying that all-American gumption. And Paolo certainly does well in the role. The problem is that we just aren't too bothered what happens to him. And this is the failing of the film at large. Everyone tries valiantly to have us buy into this dark story, but we don't really care.

    Producer Larry Fessenden (who also appears in the film) has already come to the fore with the low-budget but hugely ambitious and very enjoyable I Sell The Dead (see BD review) and his creative follow-up has a lot more to do with those who are unlikely to stay confined to their graves. But here we get a rather mundane and somewhat conventional addition to the post-apocalyptic plague movie. Stitched into its patchwork Frankenstein’s Quilt are so many elements from Richard Matheson (whose Legend kickstarted the entire genre), Romero obviously, the far more recent though equally grim affectations of The Book of Eli and The Road, as well as the dry and dangerous on-the-hoof appeal of Darabont's gory show, and even the survivalist escapism of Mad Max 2. It’s a tremendous combination to be sure, and a whole bunch of trendsetting credentials that would make any post-Armageddon gut-muncher proud, but Stake Land seems too content to muddle along without any allusions to grand metaphor or anything of an accusatory allegory that make any of this relevent. Although it depicts a new social order birthing from the collapse of civilisation and the erosion of morals as we knew them, it is not attempting to make any message or statement at all. Now that’s no bad thing, of course. We don’t necessarily want Grand Guingnol extensions of consumerism, or soul-searching exposés of the human condition in a genre that is utterly rife with such things. Or even the bogus conflict between blind faith and bloody doom. This is a simple story about people surviving in a world that has become deluged with vampires. And, as such, it does present us with a coldly vivid glimpse of what it would take to make it through each day. I will say that kudos should be awarded to both Damici and Mickle for assembling an unusual cast of human detritus, and for attempting to bring in some enigmatic Man With No Name mystique to the head-honcho in the set-up, but in just setting them loose without any real direction or arc, these once interesting souls become about as engaging as the one-note occupants of that big cockroach-squishing battle-truck in Damnation Alley. This is a film made with indie-sensibilities but without the impetus to use them in any meaningful way. It is Zombieland with the irony and the humour removed – and just hoping that a relentlessly serious tone will be enough is an error that is compounded by the fun that the makers are having in constructing some of the encounters and the slayings.

    Yet, even with plentiful gore and some terrific vampire makeup (it's hard to make these things look unique with so many interpretations around, but FX-men Brian Spears and Peter Gerner are able to pull it off), this all hangs together on a thread that is stretched thinner than the sinews of a gymnast reaching for the rope that will pluck them from piranha-infested waters. And if Stake Land wants to keep itself comic-book in tone and visual style, it is hampered by the dreary nature of the setting and the often plodding direction from Mickle, who brought such flair to his ultra-low budget rat-freak debut-feature, Mulberry Street. Once again, he prefers to shoot much of the film with a pseudo-documentary vibe, but this conflicts with the often quite imaginative situations that we find ourselves in. He plays with a lot of ideas, but they are rarely fresh and there is the nagging feeling that, no matter how much ground we cover, we are never getting anywhere.

    Mesmerised by a deadster who seems harmless just reminds of the plaintiff pity that Fran feels for the baseball-player zombie on the other side of the big glass door in Dawn's shopping mall, but doesn't carry any of the same thought-provoking gravity despite being a much more elaborate and immediate scene. A militia-man silently saluting our heroes as they leave in the aftermath of a really rather weird vampire attack on his little settlement is done in such a self-conscious and heavy-handed manner that the moment becomes quite embarrassing to watch. Clearly, we are meant to feel some terrible shock and awe at what has just happened, yet we feel absolutely nothing. Or maybe this is the point. Perhaps we are supposed to be as desensitised to all the death and destruction as the fugitives are becoming, and this guy's lonely and forlorn gesture is meant to seem alien, quaint and unnecessary. Actually, I doubt this theory very much. Mickle seems content to trowel the poignancy home when he wants to, so I reckon we should take this moment at face value. Other asides flicker across the screen detailing the lapse of human worth and the erosion of dignity, but none of them register as anything other than copycat images of distress – a dead child's feet sticking out from under a tarpaulin, or a discarded teddy-bear, say. And nor does the recognition that one character has for the continually returning vampire to her homestead every night carry any sort of emotional significance. Vincent Price nailed this extremely well in the first cinematic adaptation of Matheson's novel, Ubaldo Ragona's The Last Man On Earth, when his undead wife comes a-calling.

    Two big surprises come in the female casting. Firstly, as Belle, genre-fave Danielle Harris, of Halloween 4 and 5 and Rob Zombie's remake and now Hatchet 2, looks simply gorgeous at first as she croons away with a guitar in what may as well be the “Last Chance Saloon”, but becomes increasingly dishevelled as the pilgrims progress, although the actress just doesn’t seem to have aged at all for years. She still looks about seventeen.Playing another lost but adaptive and resilient drifter, albeit one with the dubious baggage of being pregnant, Belle is set up as carrying hope for the future – and Mickle does, at least, offer up a brave slap in the face of such a cliché. And the second, and biggest jolt of all, is seeing Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis as a battered and bruised nun-on-the-run. I can’t be the only person to sit back and gape, and wonder is that really her? Now it wouldn't be fair of me to remark about how the actress looks – she's playing someone who has been harried, tormented and abused and has come to the very brink of her faith. She's not going to look peachy, is she? But, that said, it is a shock to see how haggard and old she is. Incidentally, she is very good as the sister clinging on to her beliefs with a sense of inner-charity and calm. You can tell that the writers really wanted her character to stand out as some signpost of blighted humanity, but you can also tell that McGillis has given them more than they deserved. She does linger in the mind, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

    Overall, Stake Land confuses momentum with monotony, its initially vigorous spark doused by such constant repetition that any investment we have in the characters or the situation is swiftly reduced to a by-the-numbers “shoot-to-kill, stop-and-have-lunch” policy.

    I hate knocking Mickle's bloody odyssey this much though, because he and his cast clearly have a lot of affection for the genre and are working really hard to give the scenario plenty of emotional weight and reflection. It represents a lurid adventure, all right, but it comes completely undone by overstating the grimness of the situation and then showing us areas where survivors have attained a life of near-normality - this just downgrades the surrounding threat too much. It makes the geography of the narrative much too regular when the thrust of our heroes' plight should be haphazard and relentlessly unpredictable. Mickle wants to have his rotting cake and eat it too. He brings in virtually all of the genre's various ingredients – the dead, the bad boys, twisted religion, glimmers of salvation, sacrifice – yet the resulting flavour is as bland and as bleak as the landscape he escorts us through.

    As flawed as I Am Legend is, it gets the important things just right. Stake Land only dreams of such heights.

    With The Walking Dead proving so popular and the forthcoming epic, World War Z, that will see Brad Pitt battling zombies in a future gone all to Hell, the vogue for post-apocalyptic sagas beset by shambling things refusing to lie down and die is showing no signs of abating. Stake Land, despite its slick and grisly set-pieces and its eagerness for splashing around the claret, its dour but episodic nature and its wilfully enigmatic hero/mentor, is of a much lesser calibre, I feel. But if the lawlessness of a ragged new frontier appeals to you then this will more than likely float your boat.

    Despite appearances, Stake Land lacks bite and runs out of steam far too early.

    Gory, but dull … Stake Land fumbles when it should go for the throat.