Stake Land is one of those films that borrows from several genres, yet somehow emerges as one of the more imaginative, innovative of the lot. The vampire movie, a genre that is ruefully overcrowded these days, is one that requires a distinct voice in order to separate itself from the pack. Stake Land manages to pull that off, and plants the viewer into an gritty, brutal world where the vampire is once again what it should be — dangerous and terrifying, pitiless and unrelenting, and capable of destroying the world as we know it.
The world of Stake Land is one where the vampires have come and laid waste to modern society with extreme prejudice. There’s little to no history or explanation given regarding where they came from and how it came to be — vampires simply are. They’re mindless, feral, atavistic creatures who attack anything and anyone — when one of them is seen devouring an infant in the opening minutes of the film, that’s when you know that Stake Land is not messing around. They don’t speak, they have no noble intentions, they don’t give breathy, eloquent speeches, and most importantly, they don’t. fucking. sparkle. The film centers around Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenage boy who witnesses his entire family slaughtered by a vampire, while he is saved by a gruff, hardened vampire hunter known only as Mister (Nick Dimici, who also co-wrote the script with director Jim Mickle). Mister is a true fearless vampire killer: dedicated, emotionless and utterly ruthless — a human reflection of the inhumanity surrounding them. The world is a charred wasteland in the wake of the vampire scourge, and Martin and Mister spend the film traveling across the heartland of what remains of the United States in search of the legend of New Eden, a promised land of sorts that lies protected and unsullied. Unfortunately, almost if not more dangerous than the vampires are the vicious cult that rules the land in between, who believe the vampires are a holy sign from on high sent as a sort of bloodthirsty rapture. Led by the psychotic Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris), the cult rapes and murders and pillages their way to dominance, something that the Mister objects to strongly — most notably by killing three of their members.
That’s the basic setup. The film traces the journey of Martin and Mister, as they pick up other lost souls — Belle (Danielle Harris), a young pregnant woman found hitchhiking on the outskirts of a small peaceful village, Sister (Kelly McGillis), a nun they rescue, Willie (Sean Nelson), a former soldier without an army, and scattered others who pass into and out of their lives. The film gives no backstory for anyone, as if to say that what came before doesn’t matter (a fact that Mister emphasizes repeatedly), and instead concentrates on where they are and where they’re going. It’s a refreshing way to avoid tropes like flashbacks and emotionally manipulative tales of loss. It’s too focused on the unrelenting dangers that threaten at all times — vampires rule the night, while cult leader Jebediah and his ragtag gang of predatory troops rule the days.
Critical to it all are the vampires themselves, even though they share the role of antagonist. These are vicious, thoughtless ravagers, without a trace of humanity remaining. In many respects, they bear more similarities to zombies than vampires, but aside from being mindless, frenzied beasts, what’s appreciated is that director Jim Mickle still plays by the rules — sunlight kills them, you need to stake their hearts, burn them, or cut of their heads, they’re hurt by garlic, etc. Those rules have been cast aside of late in vampire films, and it’s invigorating to see them brought back to life … such as it were. Yet Mickle still finds new and innovative way to use his creatures, particularly in the way he uses them as a tandem threat to Loven’s cult. A scene wherein Loven throws vamps out of helicopters into the midst of an unsuspecting village of innocents is one of the most intense, harrowing sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
Mickle tackles Stake Land with deadly seriousness, and it’s reflected in every frame. The shots of America’s heartland are placid and beautiful, ranging from dense, snowy forests to breathtaking vistas of golden fields. Yet he peppers it with unflinching glimpses of the post-apocalypse devastation — bodies litter the streets, houses and burnt out husks, and abandoned cars are spattered across the landscape like dead bugs. The tone of the film is so grim and full of dread and sadness that it’s almost too much to bear at times. If anything, I think the occasional moment of humor might have bolstered the script, but no — there’s nary a joke to be found in Stake Land, aside from occasional wry, laughless gallows humor. The actors carry themselves with a similar somberness, with McGillis and Dimici easily being the foundation of the group. Harris’ Belle (it’s hard to believe that name isn’t a shot at Twilight) is somewhat lacking in personality, and Paolo’s Martin is simply a shellshocked teenager, but McGillis and Dimici bring a mature, wan sincerity to their parts that makes them the standouts. Meanwhile, Cerveris shines malevolently as Jebediah Loven, a sick, twisted zealot without mercy or moral. His strangely beatific face does a fine job of flickering between soft-spoken Kool-aid server, and rabid megalomaniac.
Stake Land doesn’t exactly brave new territory with its story or its characters, but I’ve always felt that there’s a great deal to be said for taking a tried and true theme and adapting it well. Jim Mickle does just that, using a few conventional ideas, but injecting them enough innovation to create something that manages to feel original. Oddly, the film is rarely scary, but it’s consistently gripping and enthralling. The world of Stake Land is harsh, violent and unpleasant — too much so, at times — but it’s a world filled with enough wickedness and intrigue to make it one worth visiting.
Stake Land screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston.