Stake Land (2011)

Vampires; they just won’t go away. Everyone’s taken a stab at the genre, from HBO to Kathryn Bigelow. They’ve been sexy, they’ve been psychotic, they’ve been dumb, they’ve been spoofed and they’ve been sparkly-faced effeminate wimpy douchebags. But have you got bored of them yet? Yes? Well, Stake Land will re-kindle your love of the sun-shy undead by providing the best vampire film in years. Stake Land is truly superb.

The world has ended. It’s in chaos. A vampire virus has spread rapidly and consumed most of modern society, replacing Man with point-toothed, animalistic vampires who can only die by the stake and the sun. At the beginning of this apocalypse, a young boy called Martin (Connor Paolo) watches his entire family be butchered by a bloodsucker and only survives thanks to a mysterious stranger called Mister (Nick Damici).

Mister takes the freshly orphaned Martin and teaches him how to survive in a world ruled by creatures of the dark, keeping him alive as they journey through a shattered land. Along the way they pick up a nun (Kelly McGillis), an ex-soldier (Sean Nelson) and a pregnant lady (Danielle Harris), all lost and desperately trying to find a home. This home could be the mythical New Eden 2 in Canada and this is where they head…

Stake Land is a contradiction; it steals from a swathe of other post-apocalyptic films and vampire flicks but provides a fresh and exciting twist on them all. Despite the travelers encountering an insane religious cult called the Brotherhood, these misguided raping racists are instantly believable and gradually shown to be endemic throughout America, not just a small group of psychos hiding in the woods…

The refreshing thing about Stake Land is that it treats the audience with intelligence. It doesn’t pump out excuses or lazily explain vampire lore, but lets us discover the “rules” of this new world as we go along. It even features a voice-over that isn’t incredibly annoying, but instead light, smart and sometimes wonderfully poetic (without being sickeningly ostentatious, thankfully).

Stake Land is superbly acted by everyone involved. Nick Damici’s Mister and Connor Paolo’s Martin might be reminiscent of Zombieland’s Tallahassee and Columbus, but they are so much more and could hold any film together. Mister is a wonderful mystery throughout, but Damici makes him utterly understandable and a really likeable tough-nut hero, whilst Paolo provides a vulnerable, relatable character that develops significantly throughout the film. Paolo especially is amazing and deserves a long and fruitful career.

There are also superb turns from Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris in Stake Land. McGillis’s journey is a sad, brutal one, but her strength simmers from within her and the movie significantly benefits from her inclusion. Harris is instantly loveable as the pregnant Belle, a woman physically worn by the new world but ultimately still full of hope and joy, and Harris encapsulates that perfectly.

Praise should be heaped upon Writer / Director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (yep, Mister himself) for creating such a believable world and a fantastically compelling movie. It is funny when it should be, brutally horrible at times and genuinely saddening at others. It’s a quality piece of work that shows Mickle and Damici have greatly matured from 2006’s enjoyable-but-idiotic Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street. Basically, everything works in Stake Land, from Ryan Samul’s grittily evocative cinematography and Jeff Grace’s score, which hauntingly underwrites the entire film perfectly.

There is only one fault with Stake Land, and that is the entirety of one very important scene that happens towards the end. I hate spoilers so I won’t go into details, but it throws in a twist and a ridiculous fight scene with a returning character and it simply doesn’t work. It raises too many questions and seems bafflingly out of place for a film so grounded in reality (albeit a post-apocalyptic vampire-infested reality). It’s a shame, but it certainly doesn’t ruin the film.

Stake Land can be most fairly compared to Near Dark on tone, but without the dread sense of hopelessness that laces Bigelow’s vampire classic. What Stake Land has is hope. It’s a rare thing in an apocalyptic film nowadays, which all seem like doom-laden narcissistic journeys through hell towards a bit more of hell (see Carriers and The Road), which feature tiny glimmers of hope but nothing more. Stake Land shows Humanity as I see it – capable for butchery and insanity, but also capable of love and community and brilliance in adversity. Yet this isn’t just shown through our main characters in Stake Land, this is provided by everyone they meet.

Writers / directors always fail to understand the importance of tiny roles. Offhand I can think of two outstanding performances in shockingly bad films, generated from absolute nothing parts; the motorway cop in Knowing (who spots the crashing plane) and the hotel receptionist in Prom Night. Stake Land is full of those moments, with superb performances throughout; most notable is Chance Kelly, the border guard at the town of Stridington, who displays such resolution in the face of adversity it’s almost impossible to disbelieve him. It’s a heart-wrenching role that lasts for less than a minute but stuck in my mind for days. Stake Land is punctuated with brilliant performances like this, and it makes for a compelling watch.

If you love your vampires sweet and sexy, then you’ll be disappointed by Stake Land, which depicts them as monstrous freaks who slobber, scramble and never sparkle in the sun. More like Snyder-zombies or super mutants, they work perfectly well in Stake Land. If you’re bored of Vampires, then come to Stake Land –you’ll love it there.

Overall Stake Land is exceptional. The acting is excellent, the direction and cinematography superb, the script brilliantly crafted. One scene lets it down, but it doesn’t damage an otherwise perfect film. Stake Land is absolutely stunning and I cannot recommend it enough – see this film at any cost.

Stake Land is released in all good (and some bad) cinemas nationwide on the 17th June

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

One Comment on “Stake Land”

  1. GoreJess says:

    I completely agree with your review. Truly a great film!!!

    I enjoyed it way more than I expected to – A must watch!

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