Review: Stakeland (15) / Directed by: Jim Mickle / Screenplay by: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle / Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Michael Cerveris, Danielle Harris, Sean Nelson
Remember a time when Vampires didn’t look longingly at emo girls and weren’t fierce love rivals with a werewolf? Ah yes great days, vampires ripped people limb from limb and exploded in the sunlight. Jim Mickle remembers this glorious era in horror history too. He also evidently read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend at some point and was hugely influenced by it. Stake Land is a shot in the arm for the vampire sub genre that has been hijacked by hormonally charged teenagers. It manages to make vampires scary again and present us with a terrifying vision of an apocalypse. There is just something missing that holds it back from being a classic.
At the beginning of our story we meet young Martin (Connor Paolo) whose family farmhouse is being terrorised by vampires. Luckily Mister (Nick Damici) a fearless vampire killer shows up and saves Martins life. With his family all dead, Martin joins up with Mister and they roam the countryside killing vampires as they find them. In this world the vampire apocalypse has happened, civilisation as we know it is over. Different types of vampire are out there and all have different ways of being killed. Trouble is there is also a clan of human survivors known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who are religious nutjobs who believe that the vampires are the lord’s way of ending human existence for our sins. The brotherhood does everything it can to expedite the demise of the humans who do not believe as they do. Mister and Martin come across a nun (Kelly McGillis) fleeing from her life and kill two members of the Brotherhood who intended to rape her. This brings them on a collision course with the leader of the clan Jebediah (Michael Cerveris aka The Observer from Fringe) who stop at nothing to wreak bloody vengeance. On their travels and whilst avoiding brotherhood territory, the two travellers pick up a pregnant lady Belle (Danielle Harris) and Willie (Sean Nelson). Can this makeshift family unit survive in this world gone mad?
Stake Land has a bleaker than bleak tone that has been notably absent from horror for a while. Those with depressive tendencies should avoid this because it’s unrelentingly miserable. Fairly early on we learn that nobody is safe and the absence of big name actors make it tricky to guess who will be left come the climax. This puts it a cut above most other horror films with four times the budget where you know who will survive just from the opening credits. If you saw director Jim Mickle’s previous film Mulberry Street then you know that Mickle doesn’t like convenient and nice. Armed with a bigger budget but using existing locations, Mickle presents us with a convincing portrayal of a society plunged back into the dark ages. The film takes place in burnt out husks of the old world and in makeshift shantytowns. There is hope as we see certain types of people come together and start to rebuild the remains of the shattered world. Stake Land is a step up for Mickle dramatically as well as visually. Like in 28 Days Later, we also learn that human’s are far crueller and evil than creatures of the night that have one driving desire to feed. The villain as played by Michael Cerveris is one of those great religious fiend’s driven by a need to appease a god who has in all likelihood abandoned him. He will stop at nothing though, even dropping captured vampires into a settlement to drive out his enemies. It’s a truly hissable villain role and Cerveris has a great time playing someone you can’t wait to get their comeuppance. Nick Damici as the resident badass is a very interesting looking actor. He looks like Mickey Rourke if Rourke hadn’t given boxing a try. Damici certainly looks the part as a brooding man of few words; he never has any hope even when surrounded by goodness he just keeps moving, trying desperately not to feel anything. Sadly the role is a little underwritten and a few more character moments would have gone a long way so that we could understand more about what is driving him and his hatred of vampires. Connor Paolo is not an actor I am familiar with but he is the central heart of the movie and his character really goes through an arc in the film. Paolo does a good job especially in scenes towards the end. It’s always good to see Danielle Harris and Kelly McGillis back in films and they make the most of their roles despite little dialogue.
The vampires are among the nastiest bastards seen in recent memory. They have snarling angry faces, spew black bile and are unrelentingly savage when they attack. Mickle made the right decision here with how he portrays the creatures, as far as I could tell they were all practical with no CG in site. When the vampires are staked they don’t explode or dissolve into CG dust, they just lay there and die. It’s a nice touch as the roads are littered with charred remains of the bodies which burn once the sun rises. It’s a fairly low key little detail in a film littered with them that make the world wholly believable.
Mickle had all the ingredients here to make a genuine classic movie with Stake Land. Sadly he doesn’t quite pull it off, the problem is the screenplay written by Mickle and Nick Damici which really needed another final re-write. As a whole it’s functional but feels so episodic that it really comes across as three episodes of a TV series mashed together and marketed as a movie. If this was the intention originally it’s unclear, but if so then it really needed attention so that it could be structured more like a film. The other problem is that the only character that has any kind of development or arc is Martin. The other actors do the best with what they are given but sometimes it’s like just watching miserable people traipse through the countryside endlessly. Solid, believable misanthropes but yeah, still unhappy. A minor detail or speech from Mister would have made all the difference and when characters meet an unpleasant fate it’s hard to really care as they seem better off.
Stake Land is bound to become some kind of cult film as it’s the first vampire movie for a while to take itself very seriously. Next time Jim Mickle might well make a genuine classic as he seems to be growing as a filmmaker and based on this evidence; this will be something to look forward to.
Extras: Commentaries, Making Of, Director Diaries, VFX featurette, Webisodes.
Stake Land is out now on DVD/Blu-ray