Film: Stake Land
UK Release date: Out now
Director: Jim Mickle
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Michael Cerveris, Chance Kelly
Running time: 94 mins
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Hailed by some critics as "the American horror film of the year", the highly acclaimed Stake Land has a lot to live up to. Or does it? It’s not exactly been a stunning year for American horror movies, and the prospect of yet another vampire yarn doesn’t exactly set the heart racing. Comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable; it is after all a road movie that finds two strangers joining forces in the fight for survival. Not forgetting of course that both films end in the word ‘land’, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end with this sombre, moody and utterly compelling genre entry. Zombieland was a laugh-fuelled riot from start to finish, whereas Stake Land takes us on a far bleaker journey, think The Walking Dead with vampires and you’ll be a lot nearer the mark.
Bleak is one way of describing the events that take place in Stake Land - another one might be cataclysmic. When an epidemic of vampirism strikes, humans find themselves on the run from not only the undead, but from the rest of mankind as well. Cities are tombs and survivors are few and far between, forever on their guard, fearful of what might lurk beyond nightfall. When his family is slaughtered, young Martin (Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of a no nonsense hunter who preys on the undead. Known only as Mister (Nick Damici), he teachers Martin his battle techniques and takes him on a journey through the desolate towns of America's heartland. There they face off against not only vampires, but also the fanatical savagery of a right wing religious cult known as The Brotherhood, in search a safe haven called New Eden. With enemies both dead and alive in every neighbourhood, Stake Land drives a wooden point through the heart of American cinema.
Mickle is right to keep his story personal and contained. Big budget movies like I Am Legend feel empty by comparison because they often mistake bigger for better, and even though Stake Land hints at a much bigger picture, he never forgets that its emotion that drives a story, not CGI effects. Performances are solemn yet solid. Nick Damici could play the world-weary traveller in his sleep, and his performance is underplayed at every turn, but he’s also the reluctant father figure that keeps the rest of the family alive. Connor Paolo – another actor I’m barely familiar with – impresses as the heart and soul of the picture. His journey through the wilderness is what keeps the film anchored in emotion, especially when they come across a young pregnant girl called Belle (Danielle Harris) and a Sister (an unrecognisable Kelly McGillis) on the run from two demons of her own. Their desperate plight and the bond that forms between them is what keep the tension high at all times.
The vampires that flood Stake Land - of which there are many - feel fresh and invigorating. They don’t disintegrate when you stab them, they don’t burst into flames unless you set them on fire, and hidden beneath the various shades of darkness is a welcome break from convention. They act very much like the zombies from 28 Days Later but with added bite, because at various stages of the movie it is suggested that they are becoming smarter. The scariest entities however, rather predictably, are the human survivors that have turned on their own. Michael Cerveris is way ahead of the chasing pack on this one, bringing genuine menace to the role of Jebedia Loven. Not only does Mickle handle the horror elements well, he also knows how to deliver an effective set piece, and there are plenty of standout moments to choose from. With both the vampires and The Brotherhood breathing down their necks, fear, pain and suffering is never far behind. Yet through it all, and thanks largely to a handy voice-over that punctuates the action, there is an ever present feeling of hope and positivity.
Having tested the water with rampaging zombie flick Mulberry Street, Mickle and Damici turn their attention to post-apocalyptic vampirism. It’s rare that you’ll find me clambering for a sequel, but it’s a bleak world we’re living in and Stake Land is one of the smartest horror movies to emerge in years. Not a lot of fun then, but more to the point, one that comes with emotion, intelligence, action and heart.