Post Millennial Trauma: Stake Land (2011)
Vampires, eh? Has there been a more maligned Horror genre in recent years than the vampire film? Seriously, they either sparkle in sunlight, inexplicably want to bang Anna Paquin and possibly themselves, or are metaphorically grooming small boys for nefarious purposes. In the meantime, a couple of films have come out that have attempted to breathe new life into arguably the most overplayed genre out there. A recent development (probably in an inevitably futile attempt to break the cycle of EMO rape-y douchebaggery), as seen last year in Daybreakers, is a post-apocalyptic twist: the bloodsuckers have won (and I don’t mean bankers) so how will mankind cope with being the food source in a devastated world? This year’s entry in my Post- Millennial Trauma series also follows this line: welcome to Stake Land. Bring your own garlic.
This is cleverly done. We aren’t informed what happened, let alone what caused it. Set in the near future, Stake Land charts the difficult and painful odyssey undertaken by Mister (Nick Damici) and Martin (Connor Paolo) across religious nutter and vamp infested America in the aftermath of a devastating plague that dropped humanity a rung down the food chain. Along the way they bump into Kelly McGillis’ Sister and Danielle Harris’ (continuing her one woman mission to appear in every horror film made this century) heavily pregnant Belle. Things invariably go tits up for our intrepid little band, and the film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.
Actually, the film this most reminds me of is The Road. Except it isn’t tiresome and tedious shit. It’s certainly very bleak and post-apocalyptic America sucks a fat one. Religious nutters “The Brotherhood” led by loathsome zealot Jebedia (Michael Cerveris) use the vampires (best scene of the film, this) as a weird and twisted bomb that they drop on other settlements to wipe them out. Luckily for our little band, Mister is training Martin as an arch-vampire killing ninja. Or some such. This, naturally, entails killing lots of vampires for fun and profit. Mister isn’t just about slaughtering the undead, rather he’s also teaching self-reliance. Something that I’d imagine is a pretty useful skill in the shattered future.
The relationships are actually the key to the success of this film. Damici is frankly superb here- he manages to radiate a gruffness, but also lets a certain amount of tenderness towards Martin seep through. Paolo is OK as Martin, although his voiceover is an exercise in redundancy on more than one occasion while McGillis is revelatory as Sister. Harris is a solid horror pro, but is both pretty and adorably sunny in her part. To be fair, she fucking needs to be. Cerveris, on the other hand, is a walking cliché- drawling idiotic biblical dogma in an obviously demented fashion. He’s quite good, actually, but the performance feels “wrong” in a film as understated as this one.
Stake Land is a depressing and atmospheric film. The cinematography is lush, and if I hat to pick a phrase to describe it then I would go for “achingly beautiful”. To complement this, the score veers towards melancholy classical music, and particularly in the later forest scenes the pathos pours of the screen. There’s a moment towards the end where Belle is too knackered to walk and Mister picks her up that is purely tragic, and the shot composition and music work supremely well in this context.
There really is a lot to like here. Leaving aside the atmosphere, Stake Land is also a seriously tense film: there’s an inevitability to tragedy to proceedings here, and it’s the infrequent moments of levity that invariably highlight an impending disaster. By the finale of the film these brief shards of light become painful in themselves as you know for a fact that something unpleasant is invariably going to follow. Furthermore, I actually seriously like the idea of vampires as animalistic natural hazard, and the real danger being human. This is not the most novel idea ever, but the explanation here that vampires are ruled by “the reptile brain” is well handled and relatively well thought out.
Against this though, there are problems here. There’s an intensely irritating ginormous plot hole that drove me nuts and I can’t stop thinking about it, and the end itself doesn’t feel earned. There’s a sense of inevitability to the final scene, but nevertheless, it felt like a bit of a betrayal of the characters. Furthermore, I also had a sneaking suspicion that it was being set up for a sequel. Nothing is particularly resolved, and the finale itself, particularly the final shot of the film feels both contrived and awfully convenient.
I’m not trying to be nitpicky here, because this is an excellent film, but this did sour the experience a touch, and felt like a let down given the sheer polish to the rest of the film. This is a film I do recommend, and I’m glad that I saw it in the cinema (even if I did have to go to that tourist trap shithole The Trocadero to do so) as it has been royally and undeservedly shafted on distribution. Still, those 95 million screenings of X-Men: First Period in superdooper 3 fucking D probably makes up for it for the great unwashed.
Overall, I give Stake Land 3 EMO Vampire Kristen Stewarts stinking up the screen in Twilight (by the way, are you aware that closet rapist Vampire paedo Edward has to chew the foetus out of her uterus in this one that closet rapist paedo Werewolf Jacob has decided is his life mate. Yup, I’ve deliberately spoiled the film) out of 4. Stake Land is an outstanding film and a good take on the vampire mythos with no shortage of gore and some serious ass kicking.
It is being completely missold as Zombieland with Vampires, and couldn’t be more different. If you can, try to catch it before it leaves the cinema (I reckon you’ve got about 10 minutes left) or if not, make sure you do see it on DVD later in the year. We don’t honestly want more iterations of Twilight, do we?
Until next time,