Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Stake Land

Stake Land (2010)
Dir. Jim Mickle
Written by Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Starring Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Michael Cerveris.

When was it, exactly, that vampires got mixed up in the Apocalypse? It used to be a personal thing, with the vampires. They romanced ya a little, maybe tried to steal your women, but they also appreciated the finer things in life, they had castles, nice suits, capes, shit like that. Classy shit. A personal touch. But somewhere along the line they lost their way, gave up the chase, the intimate back-and-forth dance between ambiguously ethnic middle-aged European vamps and hypnotized women with heaving bosoms. They started running around growling and shit, shooting automatic weapons, and just generally experiencing some mission drift, finally setting their sights on the total collapse of civilization.* Man, standards slipping everywhere. Nowadays if you see a vampire, he’s liable to be wandering a dessicated hellscape, screaming incoherently and trying to bite your face off.** It’s a good thing Bela Lugosi didn’t live to see this day, because if he had…well, he would have been really, really old.

I wonder if maybe it’s Werner Herzog’s fault, by rewiring the NOSFERATU story into an apocalyptic allegory of Nazism? Or maybe Danny Boyle’s fault for turning zombies into athletic, predatory disease-carriers, which then somehow cross-bred with vampires in the collective mind of classic monster fans (what’s next, an apocalypse of mummies?) Who knows, but nowadays these fucking things are everywhere, from I AM LEGEND (the original novel of which is likely the first to imagine such a scenario) to PRIEST to NIGHT WATCH to UNDERWORLD. One person I know you can’t blame is Steven Seagal. He heroically tried to kill of the genre with his assertively anti-entertainment career nadir, AGAINST THE DARK, which even I, a trained and licensed Seagalogist who has seen literally every single Seagal movie, took an unprecedented four tries to finally make it through. If that roaring black hole of all artistic credibility, pop sensibility, and human compassion failed to rid us of this apocalyptic vampire trope, I’m afraid it’s here to stay.

try harder.

If that’s true, though, at least there are a few good role models for them. DAYBREAKERS was pretty damn great (shameless plug: every time don’t see the Spierig Bros' awesome new one, PREDESTINATION, a baby vampire loses its bat wings) and now we also got this STEAKLAND one, a sequel to Kristen Stewart’s 2009 coming-of-age tale ADVENTURELAND, this time set in a steakhouse later in life as she battles alcoholism and the lingering sense that she missed nah, I apologize, I just mistyped the title and couldn’t resist. I know that’s a weak pun to spend so much time on but come on, I’m only human. Cut me some slack. I’ve written 60 horror movie reviews in the last four months, and I’m just struggling to prevent them from melting into one long lumbering sludge of lukewarm praise and overuse of the word “phantasmagoric.” Actually this one is a mildly generic but well-appointed little apocalypse tale, you know, one of those one where there’s some grizzled badass (writer Nick Damici, all of Jim Mickle’s movies, plus one other) who roams the broken graveyard of our once noble civilization and gradually picks up a rag-tag group of survivors who bond and become a family but are menaced by robots, zombies, werewolves, mummies, Frankensteins, vampires, Black Lagoonians, whatever lazy pop-culture ghoul of yesteryear had the highest box-office number in the last quarter.

That sounds cynical, probably because it is. But if this one doesn’t exactly forge bold new territory, it makes up for it by at least doing a strong take on the familiar beats. Mickle has a good sense of atmosphere, and does a very credible job of making his vampiric postapocalyptic world feel rich, authentic, and lived-in. Tons of people with interesting, dirty faces (including producer and this year’s Chainsawnukah VIP Larry Fessenden as an ornery bartender), nice, quiet character moments, and a strong eye for detail and place. The movie’s best moments tend to be the smaller ones; the team sitting around the campfire together telling stories, bonding. The long, quiet marches through ragged Eastern woodland, basking in the natural beauty which is gradually taking back the world for itself. The characters feel authentic and likable, and I appreciate that despite the apocalypse, this isn’t one of those movies where the world is full of rape gangs on souped-up 4-wheelers. You see a few people who have taken to banditry and worse, but mostly when they come across new people everyone is frankly glad to be seeing another human face, and only want to help each other. There is a sense of community in most of the places they visit, the kind of bond that develops between people who have had to struggle together to survive. To me, that feels a lot more authentic than a lot of these ones like WALKING DEAD where it seems like the human groups are competing to kill each other faster than the zombies can.

A different kind of open carry.

The movie is a a little more clumsy when it comes to the nominal plot throughline, which is about the group’s adversarial relationship with this crazy cult of vampire worshippers who like to go around capturing people and feeding them to the bloodsuckers. I think this is a great concept -- fuckin figures that when you most need people to pull their heads out of their asses and band together to survive, a bunch of them still go in the exact opposite direction (not to generalize, but *cough*Republicans*cough*). Jeez, humanity, this shouldn’t be a controversial issue, but you’re seriously telling me there are people who will actively work to oppose mankind’s survival? It’s so infuriating that you have to admit, yeah, there would definitely be people who do this. So I like the idea, but unfortunately in execution it’s a bit corny and cartoonish, particularly when the head of the cult (Michael Cerveris, mostly known for his theatrical career but with occasional supporting film roles) decides to devote most of his time to hunting this particular tiny group of people. You gotta suspend a little of the ol’ disbelief in the air to accept a vampire apocalypse, but Mickle does a nice job of setting up a world which has its own consistent internal cadence and rules… except when it comes to these cult guys, who feel more like something out of a comic book universe, particularly in the unlikely way they keep running into our buds over and over. The best thing about STAKE LAND is that its universe --even with its silly vampire conceit-- feels grounded and authentic, so its a bit of shame to blow that by inserting some villainous antagonist that the movie doesn’t even need.

sounds legit
It’s not enough to bring the movie down, but it’s enough to keep it from being great, and that’s a shame because there are definitely long stretches here which flirt with real greatness. The actors (including THE INNKEEPERS’ Kelly McGinnis, reinventing herself rather elegantly as a genre staple) do a splendid job of breathing a rough life into their characters (even when they’re not always delivering the most believable dialogue) and Mickle excels at filling out his world with a sense of character and place which few movies --let alone horror movies-- manage as consistently. Several reviews I read compared this movie to John Hillcoat’s THE ROAD, which I consider both a valid comparison and a serious compliment. It’s obvious that Mickle is a real talent to watch, and his last few movies (this and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE) are an interesting look at a serious artist coming into his own, but not quite there yet. STAKE LAND is just a little too rooted in corny genre staples, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a little too much of an overcorrection, serving up stately class when maybe just a few more cheap thrills might be necessary. Hopefully his newest ---the crime/thriller COLD IN JULY-- is the happy medium between them, but even if not, I consider a ticket to his next horror movie already sold. Vampires may not be working as hard as they did in the old days, but Mickle sure seems to be.

*Or, worse, they gave up being mythic monsters and just embraced a life of sitting around mooning over relationships and whining about life while listening to trendy indy rock.

**Or, even more horrifying, he’s listening to Death Cab for Cutie with Jim Jarmusch and Kristen Stewart. Come on, Spike Lee, let’s at least avoid that fate with DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Kelly McGinnis?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Larry Fessenden, Danielle Harris (numerous HALLOWEENs, HATCHETs, but most beloved for her classic take on the "Seagal's niece who gets menaced by baddies" role in MARKED FOR DEATH)
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Unfortunately yes, but thankfully it's not graphic.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Gotta be some beheadings in there, although I gotta admit I don't remember specifically at this late date.
  • THE UNDEAD: Vampires
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Yeah, the Vampire-worshippers
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man into Vampire
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, indie film but well-respected, even got a review in NPR.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If your religion involves habitual robe-wearing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you just might be an asshole.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Our grizzled protagonist says "Welcome to Stake Land," but it doesn't really make much sense in context. Still, they say it and there are both stakes and land involved, call it 80%.

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