Dark Sky Films // 2010 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // September 16th, 2011
The most dangerous thing is to be alive
Stake Land is an atmospherically assembled but jerky genre experience; necessarily grim, but light on ample characterization or space to unleash its cacophony of undercooked notions.
Directed by Jim Mickle, Stake Land makes the mistake of forcing another vampire themed feature down our throats, at a time where the bloodsucking fiends have become perilously overexposed. The picture was clearly constructed economically, thusly rendering the lush and moody production design particularly impressive, but ultimately one gets the feeling Sake Land might have operated more rewardingly as a miniseries. In its current form the picture simply doesn't have enough time to get beneath the skin of its characters, or explore the various themes and apocalyptic conceits that Mickle seems determined to showcase.
A vampire plague has overtaken the USA, and quite possibly the world. The country has been turned into a burnt out death trap, with violent cults and infected monsters waiting to poach survivors at every turn. Following the gruesome and untimely demise of his parents, Martin (Connor Paolo, World Trade Center) teams up with the hardened Mister (Nick Damici, In the Cut) a cold man with a knack for killing vampires. Together the pair head for the North, where there lies the promise of a New Eden. However the journey is rife with danger, Martin and Mister falling victim to both foul creatures and a band of misguided villains who call themselves The Brotherhood.
Director Mickle shows a tremendous eye for location with Stake Land, concocting a believable and stylishly desolate world for his tale to unfold within. The landscapes are adequately barren and despairing, the filmmaker deploying some strong photographical flourishes to really drive the movie's nihilistic perspective home. It's a beautifully designed feature, using substantive cinematic quirks to inspire dread and hopelessness, a welcome relief from the hyperactive edits and glossy touches that green directors usually adorn this sort of genre picture with.
Stake Land opens strongly, quickly revealing a desire to detail death and misery in a punishingly gory fashion. Mickle sets things up promptly, instigating a road trip aura speedily, sending his leading duo into a landscape infested by ravenous demons. The effects are also surprisingly good, Mickle moving away from the cursed plateau of CGI, instead imbuing his antagonists with a sense of personality through expertly applied prosthetics. Stake Land is technically a very accomplished work, especially given its less than blockbusting budget. There's nothing overtly cheap about the way Mickle has presented this story, instead the filmmaker has utilized a nice line in strategic shot construction and simple but striking FX work to provide Stake Land with a professional hue.
The script is a mixed bag, primarily because Mickle tries to do too much in one film. Dabbling with themes of loss, religion and chaos, Stake Land spreads itself thinly, never fully indulging the audiences' whim to understand and appreciate the feature's heroes. The acting on show is nothing special (a little stilted in parts), but the main trouble is the lack of focus or depth apparent in the screenplay. I'm not sure how much the filmmaker ever intends viewers to empathize with the gruff Mister, but there's no way the persona of Martin was meant to translate so vacantly onscreen. A clumsy narrative tool is utilized numerous times, presumably applied in post-production to help remedy the leading character's lack of tangible emotion, but it reeks of a sour and slapdash move by a director aware of a crucial and ultimately unfixable flaw within his own art.
Stake Land also meanders a little too hastily, offering up new subplots and characters without ever really giving them sufficient time to leave a mark. It's for this reason, alongside the story's naturally sprawling structure, that I feel Stake Land might have played a lot more confidently on the small screen.
The DVD looks sharp, exploiting Mickle's undeniable visual strengths to the maximum. The only bonus features are a pair of commentaries, neither of which is that great. One is purely fixated on the film's technical attributes; the other is a more cast orientated affair. I can't say I was bowled over by either, my disappointment compounded by the fact this release has no other notable bonus content. Sigh.
Guilty, but there's definitely some merit here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R