Defining a film’s genre can be tricky, most fall into fairly neat pigeonholes, but some defy their subject material; a film about clowns isn’t necessarily a comedy, murder does not a drama make, however few take a staple of a genre and apply the rules from an off-shoot subset of said genre – Stake Land is one such example. The clue is in the title, “stake” as a term should indicate the presence of vampires, and the film is marketed as such, but StakeLand twists these fanged demons of the night and places them squarely in another scenario – post apocalyptic zombie flick. It’s hardly original, I Am Legend followed the same plague theory (even if it failed to follow Matheson’s novel) and others have plumbed the same well of genre-splicing creativity. Stake Land’s twist is mixing the gore with road movie sensibilities, so a post apocalyptic road movie of sorts then? Thank God nobody else is making those these days……
The set-up sounds juicy, dare I say the kind of bloody mayhem horror fans (and who isn’t coming up to Halloween?) crave turning the lights out and sinking their metaphorical teeth into. A nameless drifter finds and rescues a young boy, together they brave the back roads and small communities torn apart by a mysterious plague which turns its victims into vampires. America has subsequently metamorphosed into a hotbed of death and depravity - if the vamps don’t get you then the locals may well. Militias rule the roost, cults have sprung up and law and order is a thing of the past.
So the themes are certainly interesting, and while the originality may be a touch thin on the ground, the fact that this is a low budget production, hopes could be bubbling under, that this could prove to be a sleeper hit, a lo-fi horror relying on good old fashioned buckets of blood, lots of extras in torn clothes and perhaps even something meaningful being said about society. Well unfortunately that hope evaporates amidst a sea of clichés and some of the most earnest faux philosophising this side of a sociology student’s bedroom.
Standard procedure to make an impact: throw us straight into the scenario of the post apocalyptic world with a neat bit of narration by the young lad Martin (Connor Paolo), he introduces the mysterious “Mister”, his mentor of sorts, and then we’re whisked into a brief back-story – essentially his family getting killed. There are a few decent early signs, the dog barking at an unseen presence may be a blueprint, but not showing its demise, merely hearing it stop barking is enough to indicate an element of nuance in the build up of atmosphere. No sooner has he left the barn his family are hastily preparing their retreat in, than Mister is upon the scene informing the youngster his family are already dead and not to re-enter. I suppose kids everywhere fail to heed the advice of their elders as he can’t help himself; the scene that unfolds has a bit of shock value, but the reliance on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him nature of the vamp undermines any thoughts of lo-fi new ground being broken. Necessity is the mother of invention, but when there’s an easy shot to slot in that’s already established in the genre, then Stake Land snatches it with hunger. The combat is satisfactorily grisly, but Mister – played by co-writer Nick Damici – performs that great giveaway move of the weak roundhouse kick. Slow, seen from a mile away and looking like it hits with all the intensity of a wet lettuce, it doesn’t bode well, unless director Jim Mickle (also co-writer) was going for accidental kitsch.
Seeing the post-flashback moment of Martin’s inauguration of sorts into the vamp hunting fraternity (well there’s just the two of them) is solid, and had the theme of learning been followed then Stake Land may have triumphed. The lad, kitted out in American football protective gear, oversized helmet wobbling askew on his noggin, looks in a state of extreme trepidation as the boot to the car they were riding in, which contains a vamp, is finally opened. Like an adult Buffy, but with added swearing, gore and a streak of nihilism brought on by the downfall of society nee civilization. This road is not adhered to though, and bar a few cringe-worthy montages on their journey whereby Martin is being shown some sort of staking martial arts system, there is little progression the character shows in terms of interaction with bloodsuckers.
Stake Land is a vampire movie that relies on the formula of zombie films, thus focuses for the vast majority of the three acts on survival and escape from the plague rather than direct confrontation to eradicate the threat. Not a bad idea in itself, but it begs the question, why go with vampires anyway? Beyond being fanged, nocturnal and having the obligatory Gordon Ramsay/Klingon otherwordly brows, there is little to denote they are pals of the old Count himself, if anything their grey complexion makes them more akin to orcs in many shots. There are a few varieties, but folklore is never on the agenda. Basically what we have are nocturnal beasts that like munching on humans and must have their hearts pierced or spinal columns severed. If anything, a straightforward plague with no name attached would arguably have served the story better. Having vampires builds expectations, the low budget copes with gore quite well, but there’s a real deficiency in terms of invention that pulls action sequences into the pedestrian. Three types of vamps are indicated, but we get so fleeting a glimpse at any, and the deaths are dwelt upon so little, that you’ll likely feel short changed by these creations. Nice make-up, but without one early indication of how ferocious these things are i.e. show the attack rather than the bloody aftermath of someone spitting up Dolmio, there’s little in the way of a palpable sense of danger. No head twisting, limb severing, playing skipping rope with your colon devilishness, just plain old biting and bloody.
The road movie element is driven (excuse the pun) by the narration of Martin, which contains so many Dawson’s Creek-level simplistic teenage musings that it reduces such an overlay to sentimentally-tinged droning white noise. They are far from the insightful intelligent highlights but rather the filler between scenes, acting to join the otherwise disjointed journey from location to location. The rest of the script doesn’t fare much better. The vamp-killing duo soon pick up a nun (played by Kelly McGillis) who was being assaulted. Her demeanour may have been intended as a slight on religion’s place and reliance on high-and-mighty morality that doesn’t apply in times of dire circumstances, but the execution of McGillis’ early judgemental looks and later momsy benevolence is so jagged it jars against the group dynamic.
As their travels continue, the pair collect more stragglers on America’s back roads, each a tick box on their map to cliché-ville, pregnant girl and ex-soldier are added to the Sister already in tow. They are all headed to new Eden, a place somewhere north where the plague has not affected, but to get there they must first traverse the badlands of vamps, militias and religious cults. You’d think, this being titularly skewed towards enemies of a fanged variety that they’d represent the greatest threat – not so. Though they are the catalyst for everything and form the crux of the drama, in a heavy handed dose of moralising the key obstacle in our band’s way is that of religious nutjobs. These aren’t the fluffy type like McGillis’ nun but rather cults born from the chaos, intent on dishing out their own demented brand of fire and brimstone preaching to the unconverted.
So, do they stack up as a threat capable of building the tension? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that, thanks to a narrative trajectory incapable of staying within the confines of one genre or another, unable to find any originality, and so many filler shots of scenery and slow-motion, any atmosphere of impending doom is demolished and all that’s left is the wreckage of illogicality, quasi-lessons of life from a teenage narrator and a group of individuals you almost wish would hurriedly meet a grisly end.
The worst crime for any horror is to be boring, and Stake Land manages just that. Hackneyed scripting (“we thought she was dead” – reply “she is”) is ever present, the Malick-lite cinematographic shots of nature (presumably intended to highlight the disparity of the beauty of nature and the inhumanity of man/their current predicament) and characterisation straight out of a comic book do little beyond wander the well worn path of mediocrity. The theme of innocence lost is so ladled onto just about every scene that it serves to further detach rather than give you anything to hold onto or characters to care about. The only saving grace being the fact that Martin fails to utter the tripe of all true carbon copies of Romero-esque plague films, that old chestnut of “who are the real monsters?”, though if the run time had been ten minutes longer you feel they would have turned even that stone. The piece de résistance is a baddie straight out of the Bond school, favouring elaborate deaths over simple brutal killing that might have made this seem a genuine life-or-death trip. The final scenes manage to underwhelm in a film that makes such feelings the de facto position of those viewing, and the resolution misses the aimed for bullseye of poignancy and lands its shot wide of the board and into the territory of “there’s ninety minutes I won’t get back”.
Individual strands may seem intriguing, but when woven together Stake Land can’t find any ground to call its own and hammers home any moral it wishes to make so laboriously that it proves counter productive. A vampire story with no bite!
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