Director – Jim Mickle
Cast – Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Bonnie Dennison
Release Year – 2011
Reviewed by John of the Dead
While I thought writer/director Jim Mickle’s debut film Mulberry Street was a borderline-positive watch that could have given us much better results, it was very obvious that he had some great directing talent and the ability to deliver some unique writing ideas. Because of that, I went into Stake Land, his sophomore effort, with expectations of enjoying the piece, but I had no idea that I would enjoy this unique vampire tale as much as I did. Giving us a great modern day take on the vampire sub-genre that bleeds artistic beauty and great horror, Stake Land is a breath of fresh air for the horror genre that delivers a great experience – once again proving that Hollywood really needs to give these undeveloped directors a shot.
When a vampire epidemic spreads across the land and turns America into a wasteland, Martin(Connor Paolo; World Trade Center) and “Mister”(Nick Damici; “Law and Order”, Mulberry Street), who Martin owes his life to, travel across the wasteland in hopes of reaching what was formerly Canada, now deemed “New Eden”. This wishful thinking will not come easy for the two, as the epidemic is far from over – however they have more to worry about than just vampires as mankind often latches on to drastic decisions when faced with economic and political turmoil.
If you know me then you should know that I am not the biggest fan of the vampire sub-genre. In all honesty, my reason for my disinterest in the sub-genre is that they simply do not scare me, at least the traditional vampires we get in horror films. Stake Land changed my perception of the vampire sub-genre, at least regarding modern day vampires, and that lies much in the fact that this film delivers great horror and played off much like the films we receive in possibly my favorite horror sub-genre…zombies.
The storyline takes off quick, immediately throwing us into the horror resulting from the vampire onslaught, and the film’s heavy drama element also kicks in early as well. The young Martin is forced to grow and toughen up quick if he wishes to survive the ordeal, forced to abandon his dying parents and allow himself under the wing of a master vampire killer, “Mister”. I loved that the overall storyline was simple, simply focusing on our characters as they try and make their way towards a safe haven that they believe still exists despite reports from others they have come across, but this film offers much more than just a simple journey. They come across numerous obstacles along their trek, most of which are vampires although we do get non-vampires that are still just as dangerous, namely religious fanatics who feel the vampires are sent from God to cleanse the earth and cannibals who take the easy way out in searching for food. Each of the numerous encounters Martin and Mister come across inflicts them emotionally as they are forced to kill in vicious stake-to-the-heart fashion, save someone, or find someone who provides them comfort in this dark day and age. This storyline played off like most great zombie films, focusing mostly on the survivors and how they react socially to the epidemic and then focusing on the horror at hand, while still delivering good horror of course. I really enjoyed the heavy drama element mostly because of how well executed it was, but also because it did not detract from the horror like the drama we get in other horror/drama films. The take on the vampires was great as they were not the typical vampires we see but savage beasts that resembled the “infected” seen in 28 Days Later, except they can only be killed via a stake to the heart, which just ups the tension and the ante given the kill sequences must occur up close and personal. At 98 minutes this screenplay was well-crafted and superbly executed to give us awesome pacing and just the right amount of horror and drama at just the right times, and I applaud writers Nick Damici(who also portrays “Mister”) and Jim Mickle for this great story.
Jim Mickle’s direction is fantastic, expertly selling this film to us via great atmosphere in beautifully shot fashion. I first noticed his amazing cinematography in Mulberry Street, and he continues this artistic approach with this piece, giving us constant gloomy settings very reminiscent of the subject matter the story delivers and an amazing score whose music really aids the atmosphere. The horror is great due to this fancy camerawork, which gives us a full-frontal approach to the vampire kills and vampire killing provided by our two protagonists (among others), and Mickle does not shy away from the live-action gore or creature FX, leaving me already wishing he’d come out with another horror film and continue the progress he has shown. The usage of the vampires was great, and I had no problem with them running around at full speed and acting like maniacal maniacs. Their look was great and gritty, and most of them did not possess the super powers (although they were impervious to gunfire) that most vampires possess, which made for another unique take on this vampire sub-genre that I heavily enjoyed. I was very elated to see such great action scenes thrown into this piece, and although most of them consisted of Nick Damici kicking the ass we did get a fair amount of badassery from the young Connor Paolo as well. Horror fans should marvel at the inclusion of female horror icon Danielle Harris(Halloween 4: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and many others) in this film, who plays a fairly prominent role that aided in the drama element, as well as producer Larry Fessenden (and his forehead) in his cameo appearance as a bartender. The performances from everyone involved were awesome, which was another reason the film’s heavy drama element was so darn enjoyable, and it rounded off this superbly executed effort from one of horror’s hopefully formerly under-appreciated directors.
Overall, Stake Land is a great addition to the vampire sub-genre that not only gives us something unique but a damn good horror effort from a strong up-and-coming filmmaker, Jim Mickle. Perfectly blending horror and drama, Stake Land is sure to please those who want a serious effort that delivers the goods in awesome and high intensity fashion, making for one of the best horror films of the decade and one of the most enjoyable vampire films I have seen in a long while.