Film review by: Witney Seibold
Here’s my new theory: The color of blood in your vampire movie will necessarily dictate its tone. If the blood is bright, Kool-Aid red, then you’re going to have a fun, slapsticky vampire film. If it’s bright red and gooey, it’ll be a bit more violent and a bit more horrific, but could still be more adventurous than serious. The blood in “Stake Land,” the new vampire apocalypse film from Jim Mickle, is a deep, wine-colored burgundy. This dictates that the film will be cloudy and moody and dark. And, despite its playful title, indeed it is. It’s more akin to something like “The Road,” than your usual vampire flick. Indeed, it plays a lot more like a somber zombie apocalypse movie, with the monsters only very slightly altered.
“Stake Land” is a perfectly serviceable and great-looking horror film, made on a rather tight budget. It was produced by Larry Fessenden, the director behind low-budget horror films like “The Last Winter” and “Wendigo,” and Fessenden’s work theory is, I have learned, to produce horror films on a low budget, without succumbing to cheap gags, bags of tits, and snarky, self-reference. He’s essentially trying to make good movies. “Stake Land” is not great; it has some unresolved story conceits, and a few unclear goals, but, for a film of its size, it’s ambitious, well-shot, well-acted, and a fine way to spend an afternoon.
The film follows a teenage boy named Martin (Connor Paolo) who lives with his parents after the vampire apocalypse. It’s never explained how much of the world is infected, or even how the apocalypse got started, but we do know that regular people have to be incredibly careful at night, and hide out in well-guarded communities during the day. Partly from the vampires, and partly from one of the hundreds of weirdo cults that has sprung up in the last few years. Martin is, sadly, not well-prepared, and a vampire kills his family right in front of him. He is rescued from the melee by a grizzled hunterman named Mister (Nick Damici), who looks like a slightly less boozy version of Mickey Rourke. Mister takes Martin on the road, and trains him in the ways of survival. It’s not long before they’re stabbing and staking with impunity.
The film soon becomes a road trip across America, led by Mister and Martin, and the party they accumulate, one-by-one, as they travel. They pick up a nun (Kelly McGillis), a cutesy pregnant teenage girl (Danielle Harris) who has a frustrating small amount of dialogue, and a nervous soldier (Sean Nelson). Hot on their tail is a scary, spitting cult leader named (natch) Jebedia Loven (Michael Serveris), who would feed them to vampires, or just kill them. Our party’s ultimate goal is a mythical city called New Eden. It’s never said what’s in New Eden that they need to get there, sadly. They drive through cities that are well stocked with food and supplies, and they meet friendly and pleasant people. It’s unclear as to why they feel they need to leave the safety and camaraderie of the local villages just to pursue another city. There are no speeches or insufferable pieces of exposition explaining. I guess we just have to take their word for it that New Eden is a marked improvement over what they’re used to.
Where it limps in story, though, “Stake Land” kind of (and only kind of) makes up in atmosphere. This is a very nice looking film, with a keen eye on its post-apocalyptic decay. In one scene, our party enters an abandoned van, and the peeling paint and dirty upholstery is tactile and palpable. The mud seems to have an odor. The branches look gnarled and real.
There is no real moral, and it ends without being all too conclusive, but as a mood piece, it’s scary and broody. I enjoyed “Stake Land” far more than I expected to, knowing, as I did, that it was another vampire flick in an overstuffed market. If you want to support the champions of low budget horror cinema, seek it out.