Vampire in Jim Mickle's Stake LandThe post-apocalyptic sub-genre of horror and sci-fi films are popular amongst filmmakers because it often means being able to tell a story on a tight budget. The world has been razed by some force so there’s no need to put a lot of cash into elaborate set designs; it just has to look demolished. That said, because there are so many entries into the category, it’s important to present an original idea or risk losing the audience. Stake Land adds vampires to the mix, but fails to shake up anything else.

When an epidemic of vampirism strikes, humans find themselves on the run from vicious, feral bloodsuckers. Cities are graveyards and survivors cling together in rural pockets, fearful of nightfall. When his family is slaughtered, young Martin (Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of a grizzled, wayward hunter (Nick Damici) whose new prey is the undead. Simply known as Mister, the vampire stalker takes Martin on a journey through the locked-down towns of America’s heartland, searching for a safer place while taking down any fiends that cross their path. Along the way they are joined by fellow travellers, including a nun (Kelly McGillis) who is caught in a crisis of faith when her followers turn into ravenous beasts. This ragtag family unit cautiously moves north, avoiding major thoroughfares that have been seized by The Brotherhood, a fundamentalist militia that interprets the plague as the Lord’s work.

It’s apparent the filmmakers were attempting to do something different with the genre, but they employed all the conventions of a zombie apocalypse film and still failed to address some very important factors. The most significant oversight is in regards to food and gas shortages, which are inevitable in such a climate but somehow a non-issue here. There are also numerous elements borrowed from other pictures of the same creed, including I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, Into the Wild, Day of the Dead, Blade 2, and The Road to name a few. Co-writer Damici also cites The Searchers as a source of inspiration.

The vampires are very one-dimensional – they see humans or smell their blood and attack. Killing them proves more difficult than it has in previous movies, but it makes for some interesting fight scenes. The focus however is on the small group the narrative follows and the variety of people they encounter – namely The Brotherhood. This clan represents religious fundamentalism run amok. They view the plague of vampires as punishment for everyone else as well as a license to do whatever to whomever they want. One of the most thrilling scenes of the film occurs when all of these elements combine for an airdrop of vampires upon a peaceful community. Even more extraordinary is that the scene was shot as one continuous take.

Martin’s voiceover narration is too dominant of an aspect of the film, which often makes it intrusive. A lot of his observations feel as if they could have been expressed within the actual narrative. There’s also a reunion that feels contrived and, then, virtually unnecessary since it’s quickly cut short. Otherwise, the characters are not very three-dimensional, which is likely attributable to the reliance on a narrator to develop the story. Nonetheless, the casting is adequate as everyone brings appropriate qualities to their characters. Damici is stoic for most of the picture, while McGillis makes a nearly unrecognizable return to the big screen with a warm performance. Director Jim Mickle explains he didn’t want to follow the recent trend in horror and “cast that good-looking kid from The CW show [Gossip Girl],” but Paolo gave him no choice. His performance is adequate and heartfelt, but despite Martin’s control of the picture his character is never thoroughly fleshed out.

Mickle made his feature debut with the zombie-rat thriller Mulberry Street, in which Damici also starred and served as co-writer. They teamed up again for this dark, bloody picture that essentially takes its characters back through time from civil rights struggles to the pioneer days. But the results are very similar. Mickle shows a lot of promise as a horror director, but he may need a better story to really display his chops.

Stake Land is essentially a zombie apocalypse film in which the zombies have been replaced by vampires, but to little effect. Maybe they should have just used the traditional undead…

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