Stake Land (2010)

Four days into October and we have our first apocalypse! This one features a plague, which has been done to death, but with an added twist: it’s a vampire plague! Now we’re talking.

Stake Land is fairly ambitious for indie fare, chock full of unexpected highs and an equal number of head-scratching lows. All in all it offers a pretty decent vision of a post-apocalyptic world besieged by legions of bloodsucking former humans. Incidentally, I think there’s money to be made in a version aimed at bovine audiences. You could call it Steak Land. You get it? Steak Land? I could go on like this all month. AND I WILL.

Seriously? Who ever heard of 'stake through the neck'? Here, lemme pull this out so you can try again.

The story: Stake Land follows two weary companions: a gangly teen named Martin and a laconic badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici, who fucking OWNED in Mulberry Street, the quintessential urban wererat film of our time). Martin’s family gets slaughtered by a rabid vamp in the first few minutes, but he escapes thanks to Mister’s incomparable stake-fu skills. They team up and hit the road, montaging their way through Martin’s awkward training in the ways of the fang hunter. If this sounds like a vampirized mash-up of Zombieland and The Road, you’re not far off. It’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Cormac McCarthy? Never heard of him.

The duo rambles through the decimated wasteland, passing into walled off communities and wild zones controlled by religious fanatics and cannibals. The beleaguered citizenry heralds them as honored guests, the crazed cult members not so much. They’re eventually joined by a nun (had no idea that was Kelly McGillis until the credits rolled), a pregnant chick, and a soldier as they wind their way north to a place called New Eden. The general idea is that there are less vampires in places where it’s cold, which makes me think the Canadian real estate lobby is behind the whole thing.

Not trying to be a dick here but...really?

Biggest letdown: The third act kind of runs off the rails and Martin’s relentless, redundant narration gets to be annoying as hell, but the movie as a whole remains enjoyable. What irked me most – and I admit I’m an unreasonable nerd about this – was the relatively sloppy stage combat. A ton of screen time is spent in quiet contemplation of the ruined landscape, mainly to contrast with the frenetic terror of the action-heavy confrontations. That being the case, the fight scenes simply must be worthy set pieces or the entire movie falls apart. Sadly, while they’re not Bridgette Wilson in Mortal Kombat bad, they’re still lacking in both design and execution. Even the crucial first battle, which establishes Mister’s unique prowess, looks haphazard and unprofessional. Folks, let me say this as clearly as possible: no matter how much gravitas an action movie star has, if he’s not trained in stage combat (or actual combat), treat yourself to a decent stunt double. It makes a difference.

Why you should watch: Novelty isn’t generally a word that comes to mind when discussing vampire movies. We all know vampires are like people, except smarter, stronger, more malicious and easily sunburned. But Stake Land throws a variable into the equation that totally changes the game: instead of the cunning manipulators we see in everything from Dracula to True Blood, the vamps in Stake Land are almost more like zombies. The progression of the virus that brings them back from the dead not only transforms them physically, it also robs them of basic cognition. What’s left is little more than a ravenous wild animal, attracted to human blood, repelled by sunlight, and not terribly concerned with anything else.

Can I perhaps interest you in a nice Milk-Bone instead?

Given that the monsters are depicted as unthinking forces of nature dumb enough follow a blood-soaked teddy bear to their doom, it’s hard to view them as particularly villainous. So if there is an evil to be found in this world, it’s solely attributable to the reaction of regular folks to the collapse of societal norms. Evil people do evil things and weak ones allow it, just like real life.

One other thing deserves recognition: the almost too beautiful score by Jeff Grace, who also scored the excellent House of the Devil (last year’s Best Flavor Award winner!) and Meek’s Cutoff. Even if all the original music boils down to about two or three main themes (which are sometimes overused), each one is splendidly arranged, tugging on just the right emotions. From the tinkling bells and piano tunes behind happier moments to the mournful, soul-peeling violins that dominate the quiet stretches between towns, Grace brings some serious weight to the proceedings. It’s often evocative of the outstanding soundtrack to Firefly, which should be no surprise given the obvious parallels between an apocalyptic future and the Wild West.

Is this from Stake Land or Twilight? I can't tell.

Memorable Moment: Mister leads a trembling Martin into the barn where his parents had been torn apart just moments before. His baby sister can be heard crying in the dark until her helpless squeals end in a gurgle. Before you have time to process what that couldn’t possibly mean, the flashlight pans up to reveal the vampire, clinging to rafters, chewing on the dead child’s limp form. That, my friends, is the definition of horror.

Choice quote: “Cults spread like wildfire across the southern states, waiting for the messiah. But he never came. Death came instead. And it came with teeth.”

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5 Responses to “Stake Land (2010)”

  1. Can’t handle any movie with dead babies. You’ll see what I mean.

  2. […] Stake Land – There, in the ground: it’s a zombie! It’s a vampire! It’s a…well yeah, actually it’s a zombie vampire. […]

  3. […] encountered this October have been non-standard, be they four-legged bloodhounds (heh) or mindless zombie vampires. In keeping with that theme, Lifeforce brings us yet another dramatic departure from the […]

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