Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning. Stake Land isn’t as good as you might have heard. In a genre that is currently drowning under the weight of inept music video directors offering cheap torture porn it’s easy to get excited about something new, and some areas of the media have been promoting director Jim Mickle as the next big thing.
On the evidence shown here he isn’t, but that’s not to say the potential isn’t there. There’s a lot to admire in his stripped-down, back-to-basics horror film, despite the fact it plunders from two of the most overused themes in current cinema: vampires and the apocalypse. There are moments, particularly with some areas of pacing and the action, that make you wish Mickle had tried something different. If he had, then the result could have been spectacular. As it stands, Stake Land feels very familiar.
We follow teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and his grizzled protector, known only as Mister (Nick Damici), as they travel across a new America ravaged by an outbreak of vampires thirsty for hot blood. Survivors are few, and Mister and Martin have made a good team, scavenging for food and heading towards a New Eden where they believe the creatures can’t attack them. It’s a world of empty streets and desolate towns, a place tough to survive in without constant threat of attack. Apart from the undead, they’re under threat from The Brotherhood, a crazed cult of religious zealots from which they rescue and subsequently team up with several survivors of. As this ragged bunch move and fight across the land they find themselves running from a creature born of both hellish groups.
This might be an independent production but the look and scope of the film is excellent, showcasing lush photography that revels in the grey gloom of a world losing life, and while there are a few moments when the ambitious action set-pieces could benefit from a bigger budget it’s a small complaint; the movie moves so well you won’t really notice. Mickle isn’t really bothered about the reason why life has gone sour — there is very little explanation as to what happened — nor does he waste time on letting his survivors talk about the lives they had. This is a story about living from one day to the next, getting to a place that they’re not even sure exists, and the audience is dropped straight into it. Mister and Martin have no need for sentimentality, and the film is better for it. Leads Connor Paolo and Nick Damici (also co-writer) have fine chemistry and the supporting cast, particularly 80s icon Kelly McGillis in an all-too-short role, are excellent. There are several genuine frights and enough blood and guts to satisfy even the most jaded of gorehounds.
So, what’s the problem? Technically nothing. And if you haven’t been taking notice of the horror genre for the last 30 years you’ll adore Stake Land. Those of us who have, however, will be able to pinpoint scenes and ideas from a dozen pictures. From the contrast between a haunted old protagonist and a wide-eyed innocent, the idea of escape to a new Utopia, the horrors of man being more of a threat than the monsters, this has been seen in everything from The Road to 28 Days Later to Day of the Dead and back again. Even if you haven’t seen Stake Land before, you’ll swear that you have. And you have. It’s a greatest hits record without any previously unreleased bonus tracks.
Stake Land is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 17 October