Thursday, March 08, 2012

Reel Low: Stake Land [2010]

Twilight. True Blood. Let The Right One In. The Fright Night remake. The Underworld series. Being Human. Daybreakers. 30 Days Of Night. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Scooby-Doo! and the Legend of the Vampire.

As I'm sure you're well aware, there's been a plethora of vampire movies, shows and books thrust upon us in recent years, of varying levels of quality. Obviously, you're dying to know whether or not you should watch another one.

I know what you're thinking -- and, no, the world certainly didn't need another vampire movie. But Stake Land is a little different from most of the ones we've been getting bombarded with over the past few years, so there is some merit here. While it is unmistakably a vampire picture, it's more evocative of another genre -- the post-apocalyptic band of nomads. And the only thing sparkling in this movie is the reflection of moonlight on the freshly blood-coated fangs of the barbaric vamps pursuing our heroes.

Set in world after a devastating strain of vampirism has swept across society, Stake Land follows teenage Martin and his gruff mentor and expert vampire hunter Mister as they make their way across the shell of what was once the United States. Far to the north from their Southern beginnings is New Eden, the rumored city where a human sanctuary now supposedly lies. Along the way through the back roads and woods of Appalachia, they meet hoards of vampires, nuns in distress, religious zealots and fellow outcasts desperate for a safe-haven.

Admittedly, none of that is strikingly original. However, director Jim Mickle peppers the bleak tone of the film with bits of humor and sweetness, reminding the characters of the lives they once knew and helping the primary ones continue with resolve in this brutal existence. I doubt the film had much of a budget, but they made great use of their limited resources. The vampires look completely vile, the landscape appears pillaged and overgrown, and humanity scarce.

Leading the cast is Nick Damici as the mysterious vampire slayer known merely as Mister. He fills the longstanding cinematic bad-ass role by being light on discussion and heavy on deriving creative ways to kill things. Mister is Martin's mentor, though how or when he came to learn all these useful hunting methods prior to meeting the boy is never divulged. In fact, we don't know much of anything about Mister aside from him being rather legendary for his exploits in the tiny towns they waltz into on their trek north. Early in the film, Martin asks him the name of the woman who's house he spent the night at. Mister responds to the effect of "it didn't occur to me to ask," which is about the extent of the insight we get of the man until the final minutes of the movie.

Connor Paolo's main credit at this point in his career prior to this movie has been Gossip Girl, where he plays a young, gay New York socialite. So maybe he's displaying more range here than I initially suspected. (I liked both Blake Lively in The Town and Penn Badgley in Margin Call, so obviously that young GG cast isn't without talent.) He's effective in his subdued portrayal of a teenage boy who has lost everything and must learn the skills of survival in this new world.

Meanwhile, Kelly McGillis is also solid in her minor role. I have to admit her inclusion in the cast was a bit of a distraction as I watched the movie. She hasn't succumbed to the temptation to have any cosmetic surgery like so many other actresses of her generation have, so she actually looks like a woman in her mid-50s (which she is, btw). Unfortunately all I could think about was how hawt she was back in the day in Top Gun and Witness. (I know, I'm a pig.)

Two other familiar faces also showed up in Stake Land: Michael Cerveris and Danielle Harris. Fans of Fringe might know Cerveris better as September, the Observer we are shown most often on the show. Here he is quite convincing as the menacing leader of a warped sect of Christians our crew gets mixed up with. Then there's Harris, who I could not for the life of me place until my good friend Google helped me out afterwards. If some of your most formative years occurred during the early 90s, you may recall her as Roseanne's mischievous teenage neighbor for a couple of seasons or as Christina Applegate's feisty little sister in Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead. (Unlike McGillis, she looks EXACTLY the same as she did back then; it's uncanny.) Again, like many of the other performances in Stake Land, her character called for a reserved realism, which she was quietly excelled at. (Apparently she also happens to be one of the reigning "scream queens" on the independent horror scene these days.)

Stake Land is one of the latest entries in this post-apocalyptic trend. It seems to me like all those kids in the 80s who were weened on the Mad Max series (and subsequent knock-offs) have simultaneously found ways to produce or publish their own post-apocalyptic tales and get them out into the public consciousness. There's been a slew of them in various mediums over the last decade, including The Hunger Games, Y: The Last ManThe Road, Zombieland, Falling Skies, Book of Eli, and The Walking Dead. Of particular popularity right now seems to be society reduced to a wasteland due to a viral-based epidemic. In the supernatural realm, this was traditionally reserved for zombification, but there's been a significant uptick in recent years with vampirism, as in both I Am Legend and The Strain Trilogy.

I didn't get the sense this film was ripping off  any of these other works by any means, but there were stretches of it that evoked the same wandering-across-a-desolate-America vibe that's inherent in each of them. That these vampires are more of the mindless, zombiesque variety only reinforces those similarities. Although reminiscent of many vampire and post-apocalyptic stories before it, Stake Land is worth checking out.

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