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Stake Land (2010)
Director: Jim Mickle

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There is an episode of the classic sitcom Father Ted were the idiotic man-child priest Father Dougal McGuire unexpectedly comes out with a brilliant idea that could well save the day. Intrigued by this sudden flash of brilliant insight, Dougal's friend Father Ted Crilly probes Father Dougal on some of the practicalities of implementing this brilliant idea. Suddenly terrified, Father Dougal responds that he had no idea that whenever you had a good idea, people would then expect you to come up with a load of additional good ideas too. The source of Dougal's despair lies in the fact that there is a world of difference between having a good idea and knowing how to turn that idea into a working plan. Jim Mickle's pseudo-existential vampire movie Stake Land bears all the hallmarks of creative insight but no indication whatsoever that anyone involved knew how to turn these ideas into an actual film.

The film begins with a collapsing American nation. For reasons unknown and un-revealed, the dead have started coming back to life and feeding on the living. Within weeks, the American government has collapsed and, within months, America is reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which terrified groups of humans huddle together in an effort to keep out both the dark and the pointy-toothed creatures that live there. Martin (Connor Paolo) is a teenaged boy who is saved from certain death when a mysterious stranger turns up at around the same time as couple of vampires eat his parents. This stranger - who goes only by the name of Mister (Nick Damici) - takes Martin under his wing and begins to train him in how to kill vampires and survive in a country gone to hell.

Lacking anything better to do, the pair set their sights on the legendary town of New Eden; a human enclave built in the far north where it is too cold for vampires to survive. At this point, Stake Land turns into a road movie as the group moves from town to town encountering more or less well-conceived images of post-apocalyptic humanity. One particular image involves a nun (Kelly McGillis) being chased by a pair of rapists. Horrified by this affront to human dignity, Mister steps in and kills the rapists only to discover that one of them was the son of Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), the maniacal leader of an expansionist Christian militia who see the vampires as vehicles for humanity's deliverance. Fleeing for their lives, the group continue moving from township to township only for each new spark of hope to be snuffed out by the vengeful and empire-building Loven.

In evaluating the film, I will start with the good stuff before moving on to the meat of the film. Firstly, the cinematographer Ryan Samul does sterling work on what is said to have been a tiny budget. With no money for building sets or creating costumes, much of the film's post-apocalyptic ambience comes not from the things we see on screen but the way in which those things are lit and filmed. In the hands of a lesser cinematographer, the scenes involving the militia would have been ludicrous (they wander around with sacks over their upper bodies) but Samul makes good use of lighting and filtering to turn these night-time sequences into psychotropic nightmares filled with burning halos and cavernous shadows.

Secondly, Stake Land contains some genuinely engaging ideas. First and foremost is the fact that right up until they encounter the Christian militia, human societies seem to be doing a reasonable job at protecting themselves. Indeed, there is one early scene where Martin and Mister arrive at a checkpoint expecting trouble but when Mister pulls out a bag containing the fangs of all the vampires he has killed, the man on the gate not only lets them in but gives them free food and supplies.

The suggestion is that it was not the vampires that killed America but the Christian nutters who could not tolerate other ways of life. While it is regrettable that the worldview of the Christians is not really fleshed out, I think this idea is both an intriguing and unusual one. Also compelling is the family-like structure of the group and the attempt to tap into the post-apocalyptic religiosity of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There is a nice scene towards the end where Mister and Martin encounter a young woman. As the young couple bond, Mister sees Martin go out and kill a vampire with complete control over the situation. Happy that his knowledge has been passed on and that Martin has 'learned the world', Mister simply moves on: his job as master and de facto father figure complete. Similarly interesting is the rather episodic structure of the plot and the sense that, while the group are moving forward, they are not really going anywhere. While this does allow Mickle (director of Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street) to structure the film around a series of action-based set-pieces, the senselessness of the group's journey has a good deal of poignancy.

The problem with Stake Land is that, while all of these neat ideas are present in the film, they are so poorly implemented and linked together that they frequently struggle to emerge. The chief narrative difficulty the film faces is its failure to decide upon whether to be an action-based horror film or a post-apocalyptic existential drama similar to John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road (2009).

Taken as an action-based film, Stake Land suffers from technically weak direction. Despite structuring his film around set-pieces, Mickle really has no talent at all for directing action and so he has a lamentable tendency to setup an action scene and then either skip directly to the end of it or end it almost immediately. While this works quite neatly in the scene where Loven's final monologue is cut short by a stake to the spine, the lack of any other proper fight scenes makes for a rather dull movie. Even the much discussed scene in which people drop vampires from helicopters in order to destroy a town feels underplayed, as we immediately skip to the group running for the hills. However, poor action direction would have been tolerable if only Stake Land had been able to build and maintain any kind of tension in between these action sequences, but every time Mickle reaches into the Hitchcockian bag of tricks, his hand comes out empty resulting in a film that is lamentably devoid of spills and/ or thrills.

Taken as a drama, Stake Land suffers from a weak script and an irritating tendency to hand-wave deeper themes without actually unpacking them or exploring their meaning. The best example of this is the relationship between Martin and Mister, which is played up as both the emotional heart of the film and as a Road-style allegory for fatherhood and relationship with God. In principle, this should have worked beautifully but both Martin and Mister are such shallow characters that their relationship is both devoid of dramatic tension and incapable of supporting the kind of allegorical depth embedded in the relationship between father and son in The Road.

Also problematic is the fact that Mickle finds himself strung between two different approaches to cinematic narrative. On the one hand, Mickle was clearly quite enamoured with the idea of a bleakly existential tale in which a collection of mysterious figure wander aimlessly round the American heartland vaguely searching for a promised land that may or may not exist. Had Stake Land been this kind of film then the thinness of the characters and the lack of context and exposition would have made complete sense and resulted in an elegant mash-up of horror tropes and art house narrative techniques.

Sadly, rather than going down this road, Stake Land not only tries to explain why characters do the things they do, it also tries to provide us with some top-down insight into what the characters are feeling. This more traditional and Hollywood friendly approach to narrative is all fine and good when properly implemented but rather than providing exposition through dialogue, Stake Land delivers exposition through an impossible purple and cliché-ridden voiceover delivered by Martin. Aside from being totally inelegant and decidedly unfashionable, this voiceover drains all mystery from the characters and effectively undermines all of the film's symbolic and existential aspirations. It would be interesting to know whether this voiceover was added late in the day at the behest of studios, distributors or producers, as it seems not only out of place but fundamentally antithetical to what the film is manifestly attempting to achieve.

Though never all that original or overflowing with important things to say, Stake Land could have been an interesting addition to the tradition that uses elements of art house cinema to revitalise tired old horror tropes. Similarly, it could have been a harmless action movie in which a stone-cold badass leads a group of people through a vampire-infested post-apocalyptic landscape. However, by attempting to be both things at once, Stake Land succeeds at being neither. This is a slow, ponderous, underpowered and ludicrously pompous film that comes nowhere close to adding up to the sum of its parts.

Stake Land

Stake Land poster

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