Everyone knows I love me some infection horror, from Dawn Of The Dead to the [REC] series. I know that technically, vampire movies can be classified as "infection horror." One bite (or more, depending on the mythos) from a vampire and it's all over, much like a bite from the undead. Vampire flicks, though, are usually lumped into their own genre, a rich, traditional genre that has its roots in the forever-creepy Nosferatu and has been somewhat co-opted by the Movie-Franchise-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named-But-Has-Sparkly-Bloodsuckers, which dilutes the potent potion with a strong history behind it.
Stake Land made me love the genre all over again.
From the people who brought you the underrated Mulberry Street comes this truly creative and compelling take on a world decimated by a vampiric plague. Director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici took a small budget and loads of passion, mixed it up in a big bucket marked "good stuff," and threw it on film as Stake Land.
It goes something like this: It's a world where vampires have taken over. Considered a plague, it spreads fast, causing people to become mindless, blood-craving killers. No one knows how it started, and much like George A. Romero's Dead movies, the origin is left a mystery. Fine by me, since the origin's not the story here. We are introduced to Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenage boy preparing to escape with his family. When he witnesses them all - mother, father, and infant sibling - slaughtered by a vampire, he's saved by one bad-ass vampire killer simply known as Mister (Damici). Mister takes Martin under his wing as they battle their way towards New Eden, a supposed vampire-free area in Canada. Along the way, they run afoul of the dangerous, militant religious nutjobs called The Brotherhood, led by Jebedia (Michael Cerveris of Fringe). See, Mister rescues a nun from what turns out to be Jebedia's son and a buddy, and Mister tends to play for keeps, human or vampire. The nun, known as Sister (Kelly McGillis of Top Gun), joins them on their journey before they're set upon for the first time by The Brotherhood. Eventually, Martin and Mister reunite and meet a couple more friends along the way, the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris of the Halloween films) and former Marine Willy (Sean Nelson). Sister rejoins them, and it seems like the perfect family unit, heading straight for the border.
But it's never that easy.
Not everyone is safe, not even ones who traditionally are safe in movies like this. In one of the most well-done and heartbreaking scenes, you're witness to just how far The Brotherhood will go to not only get to Mister, but simply sow terror and fear, something they'd apparently done on a large scale. It's during a moment of rest, of happiness, in an idyllic militia-protected town that The Brotherhood does the unthinkable, and something entirely original: they airdrop vampires. Airdrop. Vampires. Yeah, that's right. Think about it. A simple night of neighborly goodwill, toe-tapping music, and most of all, rest for our by-now beloved characters. Then it happens. It happens and in the short time for the carnage to unfold, you really want to get your hands around the necks of The Brotherhood. It's chilling, and it breaks your heart.
So who makes it to New Eden? What happens in the cold hills just miles away from this alleged haven?
I'm not going to spoil it for you. The ending is ambiguous, as it should be. No one is truly safe in the reality of Stake Land. It's an ending that makes sense and even though it is left open to what happens to the remaining characters, it doesn't leave you saying, "Whaaaat?" It ends, but only the way you believe it ends as the credits roll.
The acting is wonderfully sound. Only Jebedia is portrayed a little over-the-top, but he's an effective villain nonetheless: you WANT to hate this religious fanatic. And you do. Damici is grizzled and understated, no-nonsense in his role, and much like his character Clutch in Mulberry Street, he's someone for whom you can really cheer. Paolo is fantastic as Martin, a young boy thrust into becoming a man in the worst possible environment. He's both tough and awkward, vulnerable and still possessed of great inner strength. I cannot take away from the others in the group, as Harris is immensely sympathetic as the young mother-to-be and Nelson is solid as the ex-Marine. McGillis is a real standout, as the nun struggling with traditional faith and the new necessities of the world.
Like all great infection horror works, the characters are the focus, but there is an underlying theme tying them together. A theme of faith rings both loudly and subtly through the film. The Brotherhood represents the current state of "mob religion" in the world, people who would use faith as a weapon or an excuse to hate. Look around. It's everywhere you look today. The traveling band of heroes represent the true, inner faith of people who only want to survive and only want to do good for each other and themselves. The Brotherhood are those loudmouth, ignorant people who demand you think they way they do, like those Westboro nutjobs. The heroes are that pastor who greets others at the door of his modest church with a friendly "all are welcome."
Also, let me get one thing perfectly straight: the similarities between Stake Land and the wonderful Zombieland end with the names. I've heard people say, "oh, so it's Zombieland with vampires." No. It is not. Stake Land has not a lick of comedy in it. The world is bleak, it is dying, and it will never be the same. Don't let the title throw you off in the slightest. We're talking two different movies here.
Stake Land might be hard to find at the moment. It's not playing on that many screens, although check your on-demand features with your local cable company. That's how I saw it. It's well worth the hunt and it stands head and shoulders above most big-budget horror fare in that it's an honest, passionate, creative movie. One that actually tells a tried and true story (getting safely from point A to point B) without a hint of stagnation.
Well, I've gushed enough for now. Go judge for yourself, and I sincerely hope you find it as fulfilling an experience as I did. If you don't like it...oh, well. I won't hold it against you.
Until next time, dear readers, don't stay out when the sun goes down. It might be a little bitey out tonight.
Now enjoy the trailer...