Dark Sky Films // 2011 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // August 2nd, 2011
The most dangerous thing is to be alive.
Remember Zombieland? Yeah, this is kind of like that, only with vampires. Oh, and without all the jokes.
America has been wiped out by a vampire apocalypse, leaving only a band of survivors left to fight for themselves. Among them is Martin (Connor Paolo, World Trade Center), orphaned after his parents are murdered by vampires; and the stoic Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay), who takes Martin under his wing and teaches him how to survive. Along their pilgrimage to a possible safe haven known as New Eden, the pair fight vampires and religious nuts, and pick up fellow survivors including a nun named Sister (an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), and Belle (Danielle Harris, Halloween II), a young pregnant woman ready to deliver at any moment.
Stake Land is the kind of movie I've been talking about a lot lately amongst friends and fellow film nerds (we're called sun-haters) -- the kind of movie that's just good enough I wish it was better. It's not a failure, but not quite a success. It exists in a frustrating middle ground, wherein the scales could be tipped at any time...but never are.
The Zombieland comparison is, of course, cheap and dismissive -- it's right there in the title -- but hard to overlook. Country overrun by monsters that used to be people? Check. Shy, awkward kid who has to learn to fend for himself and become a badass monster killer? Check. Older guy who takes the kid in as a protege, and is already a full-time badass monster killer? Check. I'm not suggesting the writers of Stake Land ripped off anyone associated with Zombieland -- for all I know, this script was written first and has been sitting around for years -- but it is an interesting point of comparison, because while the two films share a number of similarities, there's a huge split in the way each approaches the material. Zombieland is, ostensibly, a comedy told within the horror genre. Stake Land, on the other hand, is utterly humorless; a dark, grim story overflowing with tragedy both large and small. At times, the bleakness threatens to become oppressive (shades of John Hillcoat's take on The Road), but then a bunch of vampires will be killed in fast-paced, gory fashion and remind you the movie is capable of being kind of fun, too. I wish the two tones worked better in conjunction with one another, but give the movie credit for trying at least two different things. Most modern horror movies don't even attempt one.
If there's one thing I appreciate about Stake Land, it's the movie's ambition. Though it's clear the filmmakers are working with limited resources (I applaud the fact the special effects and vampire makeup all appear to be practical, recalling the "handmade" quality of many favorite horror movies), this is a movie that spans a great distance, incorporates a whole lot of characters and background players, tries to tell a fairly sweeping story (though still focused on its band of survivors), and includes a whole lot of social commentary (some of which works better than the rest). And as much as the tone of the movie often becomes problematic, I have to commend writer Nick Damici and writer/director Jim Mickle for playing the material straight. We live in the Age of Irony, where it's much easier to entertain audiences and make your points through satire and over-the-top comedy; a lot of modern horror movies seem embarrassed to be horror movies. Not Stake Land, which embraces its dourness in a way that's reminiscent of early, great John Carpenter movies. Or maybe it's just the film's Western elements to which I'm responding.
In fact, typing out this review is starting to make me think I enjoyed Stake Land more than I realized. And, yet, if I sat down to watch it again, I would find many of the same problems. The pacing is an issue; while the vamp attacks and action sequences a pretty zippy (especially one long, unbroken take in which vampires are literally dropped from the sky by religious fundamentalists; it's the best thing in the movie), there are long stretches in which Stake Land drags. Badly. The performances are uneven, too. Screenwriter Nick Damici has given himself the plum role of Mister, but aside from being appropriately badass, he's unable to show any of the character's depths. He remains, like his name suggests, a placeholder where a gruff, take-no-prisoners antihero should be. Connor Paolo is a bit of a blank slate in the lead, too, done in even more so by narration (and lots of it) that would be tough for even the most experienced actor to sell. Danielle Harris remains a bright spot in just about any movie she appears, and the same goes for Stake Land. It's obvious she took the role (of a very pregnant would-be singer) because it affords her the opportunity to do something other than what she's used to in the horror genre. I just wish the movie had a better idea what to do with her character and with Harris as an actress; there just needs to be more of her.
Stake Land arrives on Blu-ray (after a limited theatrical and VOD run) courtesy of Dark Sky Films, who have done a commendable job with the HD release. Presented in 2.40 widescreen, the movie looks good in 1080p high def; fine detail is reasonably strong throughout (just check out Damici's appropriately weathered face), and though much of the film is dark, its black levels are consistent, rarely succumbing to issues like crushing. The 5.1 lossless Master Audio track is powerful too, with the often hushed dialogue still audible and the vampire attacks carrying enough zip to be genuinely scary. A decent helping of bonus material have been included, kicked off by a pair of audio commentaries. The first features writer/director Mickle, writer/star Damici, star Paolo and producers Larry Fessenden and Brent Kunkle. Like a lot of "group" commentaries, this one is jovial and chatty and features a good amount of background on the film's development and production; it should prove to be totally satisfying for any fan of the movie. The second track is more focused on the technical side, featuring Mickle, producers Peter Phok and Adam Folk, DP Ryan Samul, composer Jeff Grace, and sound designer Graham Reznick. As you can imagine, the conversation is much more about the film's A/V aspects (including digital photography), but it too provides a good overview of how to get the most out of your budget and still make your movie look slick and professional. Obviously, the first commentary is more enjoyable of the two, but there's enough good information on the second to make it worth a listen.
The best bonus feature on the disc is a collection of seven short films that provide "character prequels" to the principals in the movie. While the characters don't necessarily require a lot of backstory to make sense within the world of Stake Land, it's totally cool to see seven different filmmakers (including Larry Fessenden and Danielle Harris making her directing debut) approach the project in different ways. The combined shorts run about a half hour total. An hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary, "Going for the Throat," consists mostly of raw footage taken during the shoot, while a collection of "video diaries" cover several different aspects of the production: Pre-production, storyboarding, visual effects and post production. Finally, there's some footage from the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and the subsequent Q&A, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
In an era of tortured, romantic Twilight vampires, it's nice to see a movie like Stake Land make its bloodsuckers into snarling, nasty beasts. I so badly wanted to like the movie for what it does right, but I just can't overlook all of the ways in which it falls short. Horror fans will want to give it a look, because there's a lot in it to like, but it's not quite the kick in the genre's ass that I was hoping it would be. It's absolutely worth checking out and suggests that Mickle is a director to watch, but don't be totally surprised if it doesn't quite click with you.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Films
* Video Diaries