Sunday, June 19, 2011

First Impression: Stake Land

Last night I took an impromptu trip to the cinema to see Stake Land as I noticed it showing locally… impromptu as I have been looking out for the film but it didn’t seem to be appearing in my local region and then suddenly the local Odeon had it on.

This is not going to be a film that wows those looking for action films or pretty boy vampires. That has to be said at the beginning and, in a moment of public complaint, perhaps if that had been explained to the four ‘selfless’ individuals, who clearly were not impressed with the film, before they entered the cinema then they might not have proceeded to talk through the film until I shushed at them and they left the cinema.

Now, winding back from that and focusing on the film, it is worth reminding ourselves that the post-apocalyptic vampire story is, in the form of I am Legend, the spiritual progenitor of the zombie genre, inspiring as it did Night of the Living Dead. Thus this is a vampire film that goes back to those post-apocalyptic roots and creates a vampire that is a snarling, blood lusting killer running on instinct and spreading its plague across the planet. As per more modern infected/zombie conventions it is a creature that can run, however it is not just a vampire that is kind of like a zombie. Vampire lore holds and it is killable by stake through the heart, sunlight and severing the spinal column – Mister (Nick Danici), the vampire hunter of the piece, suggests that the vampires use the reptilian part of the brain and cutting it off is like throwing a kill switch.

Connor Paolo as Martin
The film begins with the aforementioned Mister and Martin (Connor Paolo) traveling together and the film is about Martin. Indeed, if it is anything, at its heart it is a coming of age story concentrating on the young man and it is Martin who narrates the story for us. We cut back and get Martin’s history. A moment with his parents as they get ready to try and escape the horror of the viral (we assume) outbreak building around them, preparing their truck so that they can run. The dog runs off and Martin chases after it and this moment saves his life. A vampire is in the garage and Martin sees it grab his mother, he runs back and is intercepted by Mister. As they enter the garage his mother is dead, his father dying and the vampire is up near the rafters draining Martin's baby sibling, which it casually tosses to one side after devouring. In this moment, with the baby, director Jim Mickle tells us that he is not prepared to soften the blows in the film; life in Stake Land is depressingly cheap. After a brief but violent tussle, Mister has the vampire held down and a stake held over the heart. It is Martin who has to strike the killing blow. Thus begins his apprenticeship.

are vampires the real monsters?
Mister teaches him about vampires as they travel, zigzagging East and West but always heading North to New Eden, a supposed human colony in Canada. Mister tells Martin that the vampires are cold blooded and thus cannot function in the cold but early on we hear a rumour that New Eden has no food and the colonists have become cannibals. The truth of New Eden is something we never actually discover, it is very much a representation of hope, a goal to attain and perhaps an outward representation of Martin’s own inward journey. As they travel, avoiding cities which are deemed death traps we discover towns in lockdown – the residents barricaded in the night, bartering for survival. We also discover that an apocalyptic Christian cult has appeared called the Brotherhood. This cult believes that the vampires are sent by God and that killing them is a sin. It is also an excuse for their own brand of survivalist fascism. When we first meet them, two of the Brotherhood are trying to rape a nun, known only as Sister (Kelly McGillis), and Mister kills them – slitting one’s throat and leaving one to die with a stake in his back. It turns out that the one he left to die was the son of local Brotherhood leader Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) thus the hunt for Mister is more personal on his part. The Brotherhood are the focal point for the negativity in the film, which suggests that, despite the creatures in the night being real, the actual monsters are still human – with all their bigotry, hatred and fundamentalist zeal.

Counterbalanced against that is the hope that exists, be it in the thought of New Eden, the pockets of community still managing to exist and in some cases flourish, and in the camaraderie that builds between Martin, Mister and the various rag-tag travellers that travel with them. However the film isn’t content for us to have hope. The Brotherhood will, by breaking through barriers or using choppers to drop them, destroy these pockets of hope using vampires and the film itself will take these fellow travellers away from Martin with little or no sympathy.

a berserker
Vampire-wise the majority of the lore has been given – however there are different types of vampires beyond those simply infected. Two other types we meet are berserkers, which are the older vampires who have developed bony armour over their heart, rendering stakes useless and thus they must be killed by severing the spinal column, and child vampires that Mister calls Scamps. The scamp we meet was played by Elis Cahill, whom we previously met in Thicker than Water: The Vampire Diaries part 1. Mister alludes to having seen other vampire mutations.

The acting and casting was bob on, especially in respect of Nick Damici who, despite his character’s background remaining mysterious (though more is offered in an official, online, character portrait), manages to draw a hard, world weary but caring character. We do get a cameo from Larry Fessenden who was also a producer of the film and was himself behind the genre films Habit and I Sell the Dead. The soundtrack was an interesting part of the film, mournful would be the best description and it really set an atmosphere that suggested that the film wasn’t meant to be the action or horror picture that some might have expected.

I thoroughly enjoyed Stake Land (ill-mannered cinema patrons not withstanding), though I could understand why it might fail to hit the buttons for other viewers. The IMDb page is here. (Article images sourced from Google images)


Clark49 said...

I enjoyed the film, perhaps more than I thought I would, and as discussed briefly after the showing, thought that drawing comparisons to Zombieland (albeit without the comedic element)and the series The Walking Dead, in terms of firstly the "buddy" element and secondly the post-apocalyptic groups of survivors, some just struggling to live and others exploiting any who come across their path, was worth a mention. To me it seemed to borrow quite heavily from those scenarios as shown in the above, and also countless other films, but that did not detract from the film.................the only distraction was the 4 idiots who couldn't understand the film as it wasn't a "sparkly" vampire love story

Taliesin_ttlg said...

That buddy element is a common trope in movies - and distinct from I am Legend, which eschews all form of buddy element for abject lonliness. (That lonliness being the point, of course.)

There were certainly Zombieland aspects - indeed I felt that the vampire santa claus was an oblique reference to zombieland and the zombie clown therein

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Guess what? I would like to see this idea - feral blood-lusting vampires - carried in my beloved Gothic trappings. I remember reading reprinted Tomb of Dacula and one issue featured these type of vampires and siege of Transylvanian cottage. Beautiful artwork.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

it is a combination that could definitely work Rose

Margaret said...

Jealous! Thought of taking a trip to Chicago when this was playing there recently to see it, but it didn't pan out. Now I am just gonna have to wait for it to come on video. Glad to hear it was a good one. Sounds about like what I have been expecting it to be. Sorry about your poor movie viewing experience, though. Nothing worse than other people ruining a movie!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

It was the mentality I didn't understand... if I had disliked a film that much I would have left, I certainly wouldn't have dreamed of talking through it... The impact, however, wasn't as bad as it could have been (and at least they left after the shush) and the film itself good... if dour :)

Anthony Hogg said...

It's hard not to see some Zombieland similarities in the plot description (as Clark49 mentioned), but I suppose you could argue that the buddy motif is a trope in vampire apocalypses.

Fer instance, how about Robert Neville's dog in I am legend?

Back to the flick. Apart from the lore you've mentioned, Andy, how about other aspects? Garlic, crosses, that kinda thing...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Anthony

The big difference between this and zombieland is that this is very dour and zombieland is a comedy... the buddy motifs are there but to some degree, in an apocalypse movie, are necessary for viewer engagement (even if it is the dog!)

lore wise there is a religion aspect but not in the normal way. Mister rubs garlic on a stake and is asked if it works, he says it can't hurt... that's about it in a standard vamp lore sort of way.