Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stake Land (2010)

Title: Stakeland (2010)

Director: Jim Mickle

Cast: Connor Paolo, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Nick Damici


New horror directors, there’s a slew of them out there, but the question is: are they worth a damn? Do they have what it takes to form a part of the elite? Will they ever stand proudly next to the likes of John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven? I always find it interesting to see new horror directors emerge, because let’s face it, horror films are currently going through an anemic state. To me, American horror films simply don’t have the guts and gore they used to, they seem a bit restrained when compared to horror films of the 70’s and 80’s. The same can be said about action films, but that’s a whole other blog post. So when a film like Stake Land comes along, where its getting pretty decent reviews all around, my hopes are raised. Some reviewers are going as far as calling Stake Land “The best American horror film” they have seen in a long time. Are comments like these a log of hogwash? Or is Stake Land deserving of such praise?

Story is fairly simple. A young man named Martin has just lost his entire family in a vampire attack. It’s a good thing that the mysterious drifter known only as “Mister” suddenly appears and saves Martin from dying in the attack as well. Mister decides to ‘adopt’  Martin along his travels through post apocalyptic America and teach him everything he knows about killing vampires. There’s talk of a vampire free area called “New Eden” and Mister and Martin are headed there. Along the way, the encounter a couple of freaks, make a couple of new friends, and encounter a dangerous religious cult. Will they ever make it to New Eden alive?

One thing I liked about Stake Land is that it effectively manages to sustain the dreadful atmosphere of a post apocalyptic world very well. It achieved this by shooting most of the film on out door locations, a very smart move when making a post apocalyptic film, all you have to do is find an abandoned building and shoot your film there. The landscape on this one is grim. If I had to compare Stake Land to any other films, I’d say it’s a mix between The Road (2009) and 28 Days Letter (2002). And much like 28 Days Later, this film is more about the characters that inhabit the film than the vampire action or gore. In fact, for long stretches of film, you won’t even see any vampires. The creatures of the night function more as a backdrop to the story more than anything else.

Though the film does have some good looking vampires, and the make up effects are very well achieved, this isn’t a film made to impress you with it’s make up effects sequences or gore, Stake Land is more of a character driven film than anything else. The thing is that for a character driven film to work well, characters have to be interesting, they have to have something to say, the situations and dynamics amongst the characters have to be interesting enough to keep us hooked, or else you’ll simply end up with a boring movie. Stake Land arrives somewhere in between. It’s not the most exciting film ever made, but it has a winner with the character of ‘Mister’ portrayed by newcomer Nick Damici. Mister’s a vampire hunter/loner type with a heart of gold. He’s the kind of character that Mickey Rourke or Woody Harrelson would have been great at playing. In many ways, this one has the same dynamic seen in Zombieland (2009), with an older more experienced character serving as a father figure and teaching the younger kid how to survive in the mean old world.

Thematically speaking, this one is all about survival. You adapt and survive as best as you can or the world eats you up. The film also decides to make a comment on religion when Mister and Martin encounter a religious cult of freakazoids who seem to think that vampires were sent by God to make humanity pay for their sins. An idea similar to this one was presented in the independent zombie film called The Dead Next Door (1989). On that film a religious group of individuals decide to worship zombies as something sent by god instead of the zombies being enemies of humanity. My only real gripe with this movie is that in terms of plot and themes, Stake Land is very thin. It never goes past the survival mode. The film is simply about a group of people going from one place to the next, searching for a zombie-less place to live in, along the way they encounter the religious cult, they encounter a town that’s trying to re-establish a modicum of humanity; but that’s about it. The whole religious cult sub-plot is something that pops up half way through the middle of the film, and is then dropped. The film doesn’t have a strong theme to pull it together, in this sense; thematically speaking the film feels a bit disjointed. The film portrays religion as an evil in society, but it doesn’t go very deep into these themes either, it simply touches upon them briskly instead of really going for an exploration of it’s themes. 

Sadly, even though Mister is a fun character (loners always make entertaining characters in films like these), the film looks great, manages to maintain a great post-apocalyptic vibe to it and is well acted, Stake Land still manages to be a boring film. A vampire pops up every now and then, but nothing new or interesting is presented to us. Stake Land does a decent job of creating a dreadful place for its characters to inhabit, but fails at being an entertaining or engaging film. My guess is that they were purposely going for a deadly serious vibe, and they achieved it. But we must remember that deadly serious doesn’t have to equal boring, which I’m sad to say is this film mains problem. They needed to turn up the heat just a bit more. Take for example 28 Days Later, Stake Land’s biggest influence in my opinion. That film was about characters, it captured humanity pulling together in the midst of all the chaos. It presented us with characters that made an effort to show each other the warmth that the world they inhabited was not giving them; but heres one thing 28 Days Later never forgot: it was first and foremost a zombie film. It never forgot to give us that jolt of excitement that Stake Land forgot all about. Still, this is better than a lot of the crap that passes for horror nowadays. And does a couple of good moments here and there, unfortunately, it looses steam pretty early on. If you ask me, what this film managed to do was show that director Jim Mickle has promise, and that we need to see what he will come up with next. Hope it’s something as well made as Stake Land, but with a bit more excitement to it.

Finally, why is this movie getting so many good reviews? Honestly, the film is well made and all, but it’s not the “best American Horror film of the year” or a film you have got to see before you die or anything like they are making it out to be. I just think that horror fans are sick of Twilight, they where thirsty for a real vampire film. Films like Twilight  fail to deliver the goods, they fail to give horror fans what they want to see in a vampire film. And since Stake Land is the real deal as far as vampire films go and its a vampire movie with vicious bloodthirsty vampires instead of vampires that sparkle like diamonds when sunlight hits them, horror fans have embraced it with open arms. But the end all be all of vampire films this one isn’t.  

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5  


Unknown said...

I am curious to see this one. I enjoyed the film that these guys made previously called MULBERRY ST. which also stars Nick Damici and is a very character-driven horror film. This one looks interesting and I like the premise. Will have to give it a go!

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, I read bout Jim Mickle also being involved in Mulberry St., I should give that one a go as well since I thought Stake Land was well made.

Thanks for commenting J.D.!

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I liked your reservedly positive review of Stake Land, Francisco. I read about this modestly budgeted horror film on another blog I follow months ago and they highly recommended it. I rented it from Netflix as soon as it was available and was glad I did. Stake Land is the type of horror film that would never get the green light from a major studio, for many reasons; the least of which is its lack of “name” actors.

I’m not a huge fan of Post-Apocalyptic films – be they Horror or Science Fiction. They are usually too depressingly realistic (The Road – 2009) or unrelentingly unrealistic (Priest – 2011) to name but two recent examples. I didn’t like either The Road or 28 Days Later, so I object to your comparing Stake Land – which I liked – to them. Stake Land does share the gloomy desperation of The Road, but it has an overall more positive slant on humanity than that film. It has been several years since I’ve seen 28 Days Later, so maybe I don’t remember it well enough to understand your comparisons to that film. I do agree 28 Days Later captured the emptiness of a dying world (particularly the empty cityscapes), but unfortunately I never really cared for any of the characters in that film. I think why Stake Land works for me is the very gradual bonding of Mister and Martin; which happens at such a slow pace in the film that it comes off as a natural progression of character rather than as a plot device. I am a massive Zombieland fan, but comparing Stake Land to it does both films a disservice. Both films share a certain heart and emotional gravitas, but Zombieland is a flat-out satire and Stake Land is straight-up drama.

I disagree strongly that Stake Land is a boring film. You’ll have to take my word for it that I prefer action-orientated Post-Apocalyptic horror films like Doomsday (2008), Mutant Chronicles (2009) and Daybreakers (2009), but I still liked Stake Land despite its lack of any sustained action sequences. I think the characters and their journey were interesting enough for me that I never felt the need for some action to spice the plot up. I also liked the slightly different type of vampire that was portrayed in Stake Land (yes – you could argue that they were similar to the vamps in 30 Days of Night - 2007, but let’s not pick nits), so that kept me interested as well.

Finally, as someone who studied filmmaking in my college years, I still admire well placed camera shots and effective cinematography in films. Stake Land has some beautiful shots of both landscapes and portraits that help to create an additional depth to both the setting and the characters. In a great film, the camera becomes another character in the film, because the camera is the eyes of the film viewer and affects how we see the world that the filmmakers have created. I look forward to director Jim Mickle’s next film, as I think Stake Land shows he has much promise as a director.

I honestly think Stake Land has received so many favorable reviews among horror film fans is because it is a good film that stands on its own, without comparing it to any other recent horror/vampire films.

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Fritz: I'm a huge fan of post apocalyptic movies, so this is the reason I so looking forward to this one, and in my opinion the feeling of living in a post apocalyptic world was captured efectively on Stake Land.

I compare it to 28 Days Later because it's a film that focuses more on the human side of things, on the characters that are trying to survive and how they show each other warmth and caring in the midst of all the chaos thats going on in their world. Also, I thought parts of the soundtrack to Stake Land sounded like the soundtrack for 28 Days Later.

My comparisons with The Road are obvious, the post apocalyptic landscape is absorbing, but also because it's a story about a young kid and his father or father figure trying to survive in the post apocalyptic landscape.

Same reason why it reminded me of Zombieland, young dude, older more experienced guy teaching him the ropes. Also, Mister and Talahasee are similar tough dudes whom you dont want to mess with, of course the films are different in tone, I agree.

Mutant Chronicles, what a terrible film. I love sci-fi and post apolyptic films, but I really hated that one! Doomsday dissapointed me as well. They had more action than Stake Land but were terrible movies in my book. I didnt hate Stake Land, I just thought it needed a bit more spicing up in terms of vampire action. I did like that scene where the vampire gets a stake through the neck though!

Agree about seeing future Jim Mickle films, looking forward to seeing where he goes next. Stake Land was very well shot, I agree. It's not surprising, Mr. Mickle has lots of experience on the technical side of filmmaking previous to directing Stake Land.

Thanks for commenting man!

Richard of DM said...

I had heard someone say that Stake Land was the best horror film to come out in years and, trusting that person's opinion, I checked it out. Thanks to the over-hype, I was let down. I too found Stake Land's pacing to be abysmal. It holds together for a long time but the film's momentum comes to a crashing halt more than once. Stake Land's atmosphere is without a doubt very, very good but it doesn't carry the movie..

For me, the nail in the coffin though was the generic "ooh, a main character just shot themselves" gag where the group somehow secretly knows that a gunshot means that one of their gang had chosen suicide over becoming a vamp. Can we seriously stop doing that in movies now? So lame. I also hated how Martin kept practicing with his special stake-maneuver long after the film was underway. Okay, he's ready to kill vamps now. Can we friggin' move on?

Franco Macabro said...

Glad to see Im not alone on this one!
Sometimes everyone likes a movie and you feel like "what's wrong with me? Why dont I like this one as much as the next schmoe?"

This film is certainly guilty of being overhyped as "the best vampire film" and about it being an exceptional film that you just got to see.

To me it's a moderate vampire flick, thats very well shot and acted, with a director that shows some promise. But mind blowingly good it wasnt.

venoms5 said...

I really liked this one a lot. I hadn't paid any attention to it till blind buying it a few weeks ago. Just posted my review, too. I didn't find it boring at all, though. I thought the pacing was well distributed between the action and the exposition. Great film and one I highly recommend for those sick to death of vampire movies and desiring to see something with some fresh blood. I absolutely hated that MULBERRY STREET crapola so I was shocked at how good this one turned out to be. Good write up as always, Fran!


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