Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that vampire franchises like “True Blood” and “Twilight” have sunk their teeth into audiences around the country, creating an army of obsessed fans. While these two series are not the only ones to invade popular culture, it’s clear through the abundance of novels, films, and television shows in the genre, that vampires are at the height of their fame.
In a world oversaturated by these creatures, you may be tired of the fanged fiends, but there’s still hope for interesting tales about them. Take for instance writer/director Jim Mickle’s second feature “Stake Land,” a gritty post-apocalyptic horror movie, which successfully avoids vampire genre clichés, to engage viewers through a mixture of western, road, and zombie film elements.
“Stake Land” opens with narration from our protagonist Martin (Connor Paolo), a jaded teenager who speaks to us from a world where organized government has been toppled by bloodthirsty vampires. He flashes us back to when his family attempted to flee the plague, and his parents were killed by these bloodsucking creatures. Thankfully for him, a grizzled stranger that we come to know as Mister (Nick Damici) arrived in the nick of time to save him from the monsters.
Mister takes Martin under his wing after this, showing him how to kill the vampires through staking lessons, and the occasional trial by fire, where Martin must fight the creatures on his own. As the two travel through the American south, they pass through sparse settlements, acquiring supplies and new companions like a nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris), and an African American solider (Sean Nelson).
The group makes their way north with the goal of reaching New Eden, a settlement supposedly unaffected by these horrible creatures. Along the way, they unintentionally cross the Brotherhood, a religious cult determined to conquer anyone who refuses to join their fold. Our heroes become locked in a desperate battle for survival as they continue on their trek, trying to avoid Brotherhood forces and packs of vampires.
Director Jim Mickle and his co-writer, Nick Damici, defy genre clichés by creating vampires that don’t fit the traditional mold. Their bloodsuckers are strong, but also ugly and disgusting, dripping vile fluids in the same way zombies do. Silver, holy water, and crosses don’t kill these creatures though; more realistic, brute force methods of staking and destroying their lower brain functions are needed to dispatch them.
Mickle gets you invested in his characters because he focuses on the relationships formed by their journey. He emphasizes their caring for one another and their teamwork to weather harsh conditions together. The relationship he spends the most time on however is the one between Mister and Martin, which is like a father-son bond. Even though there is no blood relation, Mister is like a lone western gunslinger, protecting Martin and teaching him survival skills.
Although “Stake Land,” has some dark moments like other post-apocalyptic films, Mickle’s tale has two lighter elements that separate it from the pack. Since vampires are unable to roam freely during the day, Mickle uses daytime as a safe refuge, where people can unwind and enjoy living. The spirit of human cooperation is also much stronger in “Stake Land,” than other films in the post-apocalyptic genre. Instead of fighting over scarce resources, people band together to establish safe communities. Mickle’s “Stake Land,” gives you hope that even though things are bleak, that people will regain control someday.
My Grade: A