'Stake Land' Excels as a Gritty, Sparse Vamp Indie

Directed by: Jim Mickle, Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: B+

Stake Land needs a better title; specifically, Stake Land needs a more tonally-fitting title that doesn't recall Ruben Fleischer's horror-comedy hybrid, Zombieland, from a few years prior. Sure, the concepts are similar: a global plague -- or, at least, one territorial to the United States -- has crippled society into an ungoverned network of fearful part-empty towns and dangerous roads, while bloodthirsty creatures mindlessly linger for the opportune moment to attack passersby. Only there's nothing humorous about Jim Mickle's budget-defying jaunt, which trades zombies for vampires, head-shots for stabs through the heart, and jovial yuck-worthy kills for a stringent mood with the sensibility of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It scrapes the genre aspects into a melting pot, from the desperation and grit in The Road to the kinetic fear from 28 Days Later, and invokes gritty, artful grace into a voyage across fang-laden America.

The similarities don't stop there, though. An inexperienced, twitchy teenager, named Martin (an effective Connor Paolo) in a nonchalant nod to George A. Romero's sole vampire film, folds in with a rugged vampire killer -- colloquially named "Mister", played with classic Western bravado by co-writer Nick Damici -- after losing his family and home to the country's epidemic. When not trekking north towards "New Eden", a Canadian locale rumored to be free of vampires, Mister teaches Martin how to wield a stake and dodge the monsters' advances. Stake Land is an environment where people live off what they can scavenge, and they usually travel, if at all, in small packs during daylight; Mister and Martin gain and lose companions along the way, giving the narrative a location-to-location tempo as they trade fangs and medical supplies for food, drink, and shelter while interacting with a medley of destitute souls.

Stake Land thrives on Martin's melancholy outlook as he narrates through a grim string of episodic trials as Mister's copilot, captured in Ryan Samul's dour but compelling cinematography which nourishes both the blood-caked grunge and rays of faint beauty in their trek. Gothic, unnerving atmosphere lingers in Mickle's horror tale, while the companions that the duo encounter along the way insert weight with their presence, even if not explicitly stressed; a nun (Kelly McGillis) saved from a cluster of cannibals eventually offers a glimpse at a jaded holy person's perspective on the plague, while a down-home, appealing pregnant girl (Danielle Harris) spotlights the importance of continuing the human bloodline -- alongside Martin's affection for the opposite sex. No-one is disposable here, only a medley of well-fleshed, consequential survivors that invoke empathy enough to keep the dread looming over the impending danger.

Innovation might not be Stake Land's strong suit, but Jim Mickle gives it a pulse by enriching his influences with a distinct, desolate attitude. The trek towards a secure asylum arises often in post-apocalyptic narratives, as a symbol of hope and as a straightforward way to heighten the stakes, and alongside that, a rugged and reticent guide often takes an abandoned youth under his wing to show him the ropes of blade-wielding survival, illustrating the tactics needed in society-crippled direness. You'll see these elements clearly here, but in an solemn, valid fashion that reaches for earnestness; there's a point where Mister and Martin sling their wrist-latched stakes in a small field of fluttering flowers while taking a pit-stop, tiptoeing on training-montage ground, but the earthy, convivial perspective we're granted lends it gravity through the intimate knowledge-passing between humanity's "orphans".

They're not preparing to kill incarnations of Edward or Bill Compton or Lestat, though, as this breed of vampires aren't the society-mingling deviants that fiend on lustful blood-tinged debauchery. In fact, if it weren't for the need to ram a wooden stick through their chest-plate or the way they combust under sunlight, it'd be easy to mistake them for zombies or the "infected": mindlessly thirsty and inelegant, more of the I Am Legend variety. Relegating them to voracious machines opens up deeper reflections within Mickle and Damici's script, where some of the survivors -- namely "The Brethren", insignia-bearing, radio-using religious militants led by fanatic Jebedia Loven (Michael Ceveris, The Observor from Fringe) -- believe the vampire transformation to be a plight delivered from the divine. Humanity's ugly cynicism is heightened against the vampires' uncontrollable sensory hunger, giving the film a visceral edge with blatant Romero-like critical overtones.

Stake Land isn't concerned with constant brutality, rarely (only occasionally) reveling in blood-spurting violence for the sheer gory delight that accompanies entries in the genre. Instead, it becomes rousing due to its prudent shifts between Mister and Martin's scoffs with the bloodsuckers and the shrewd current of dread that rustles around their avoidance of the nasty corners of post-disaster America, either when they duck into dusty human hideouts and abandoned homes or weave through chilly, perilous backwoods. Gore hounds receive a few doses of grotesquery to sate their palate, from deftly-telegraphed impalements on convincing vampire effects to the disheartening human wounds that occur, but it's the dire imagery -- textured and dimly hopeful against the decaying fractured foundation of civilization -- that effectively crafts Stake Land's looming anticipation, not expecting crimson (or other-hued) spurts. We want the band to thrive instead of risk their lives for brash kills, a sign of solid, tense horror-laced plotting.

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