on 8 October 2013
As the world finds itself on the brink of destruction, due to the outbreak of a hellish pandemic that has swept across the globe and its continents with irrepressible speed, turning most of the population into ferocious beast-like vampires, it seems the institution of man is doomed to rot away among the already shattered monuments of past glories.
In the midst of the crumbling civilization of the new world, we meet Mister (Nick Damici), a rough n' ready death dealer to the bloodsuckers and his partner in crime, the young boy Martin (Connor Paolo), as they travel through the ravaged states and locked down communities of this fallen America. Their goal is to make it up north to Canada or more specifically the renowned safe-haven, New Eden, which is rumored to be one of the last bastions remaining for the human race.
But the dangers of the new world order are ubiquitously present and as the union ventures forth, they become entangled with a brutal "legion" known as the Brotherhood, a right-wing militant group who perceives the feral bloodsuckers and the eruption that spawn them as the work of God, which they in turn have been chosen to uphold and regulate as his sworn servants and new-found earthly rulers. As conflicts between the two factions turns to out and out warfare, the confines of New Eden conversely, comes to represent a dream that slowly but surely slips further and further away.
Stake Land is the second feature from the writer, star and director team of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici and after the very promising debut that was the New York based rat virus disaster film, Mulberry Street (2006), the boys really hits it out of the park with this, their sophomore effort.
Stake Land should down a trait for those with a preference for films such as George A. Romero's various zombie entries, 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo 2007) and all the apocalyptic features available out there but perhaps most palpably the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009).
Stake Land, at its core however, feels more like an old school western than anything else, albeit one that is jam-packed by ferocious blood sucking monsters. Our heroes are roaming through the desolated landscape, making stops at random checkpoints along their route, for whiskey, women and the occasional haircut. They are men of the land, drifters that travel by day and spend their nights sitting passively by the scarcely illuminating campfire hoping most of all to catch a few hours of sleep, before once again venturing out into the world to do battle with any and all in it. A fantastic approach to the narrative that pays off immeasurably in regards to creating a somber atmosphere and effective and appealing characters.
And speaking of characters or rather the actors portraying them, I'm quite pleased to report that by and large, their efforts are exceedingly rewarding. Nick Damici shines overall however, as his representation of the gruff bad to the bone vampire hunter Mister, embodies everything that a mean, hard-core alpha-male needs to be in order to work effectively on screen. Mister is the sort of disestablished loner that John Carpenter perfected in crafting, at the early stages of his career and to experience that kind of character without having the filmmakers pussy out and compromising his anti-heroic antics at the altar of bland, crowed-pleasing "entertainment", constitutes a great deal of admiration, not to mention enjoyment in yours truly. The youngster Martin, played by Connor Paolo, is likewise handled with great expertise and manages to invoke sympathy rather than annoyance (as so many child- and teenage characters seem to do) and furthermore plays wonderful alongside the reticent Mister, instilling in him a vague sense of compassion and humanity.
The rest of the characters are well-defined and inspire empathy and even though their efforts aren't always the greatest, they mostly work in the context of the scenes they are present in. Particularly impressive is Kelly McGillis (who is far removed from her image as a 80s sexpot) as the anonymous nun who come to function as a sort of surrogate mother for Martin, and also Danielle Harris as a young barmaid with a crippling component, growing inside of her.
The film's main antagonists, the vampires, are all brutal growling undomesticated beasts as far removed from the velvet draped, sickly romanticized counterpart as humanly possible (and all the better for it, I might add).
Director Jim Mickle and producer Larry Fessenden have managed to achieve an incredible effective vision of a world gone up in flames on a relatively minuscule budget (rumored to be around $4 million) and technically the film shines high above most of its genre equivalents. The cinematography by Ryan Samul, shot on the very popular Red One camera, places great importance on capturing the environments and the terrific works of the art department in particular, and both are brilliantly executed.
This is wide-screen cinema at its finest which begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Furthermore it has to be said that the decision to shoot in the economically dejected environment of Pottstown, Pennsylvania aids the production team immensely in capturing an area that positively reeks of poverty and despair, a location that don't seem to need that much in the way of set dressing, to pull off that all pervasive air of the post-apocalyptic landscape. From abandoned corrosive railways to industrialized coal towns, this film accomplishes the look and feel of a society that's crumbling away, which expertly amplifies the film's, admittedly less than subtle subtext concerning America's, and the world's for that matter, ostensibly downfall, with reverberations of financial ruin and religious fanaticism banging away in the background. And as a fellow left-winger I can help but punch the air, when sampling a genre film which has the balls to amalgamate its story with social and/or political conscience/agendas.
Lastly I want to place great emphasis on the beautiful score by Jeff Grace as it truly is one of the very best I've ever heard in regards to establishing mood and overall ambiance.
With great emphasis on the importance of three dimensional characters and the necessity and value of atmosphere to go along with the depiction of the landscapes they travel through, the film, very skillfully manages to accomplish that rare quality of making the viewer connect and therefore care for the outcome of the story and the faith of its characters.
If I were to nitpick I'd say that the voice-over can get a little banal at times and the revelation regarding the identity of the final foe is both disappointing and contradictory to the established narrative (a shame, since it is very well set up).
But a few minor flaws can't diminish from what is arguably an absolutely flawlessly executed film, which fortunately insist on taking itself serious and doesn't pander to the one-liner craving horror-comedy crowd (more please). Ultimately Stake Land is as tense and brutal a film, as it is a humanistic and moving one, yes, this reviewer felt the tears pressing as the end credits started to roll. A rare example of a vampire movie that doesn't suck (pun intended).
Reviewed here is the region free Blu-ray from Metrodome, released in the UK. The feature is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the quality of the image is absolutely flawless, which is also the case regarding the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack - truly a demo-disc to be sure.
As for the extras, you get a whole helluva lot, starting with two very entertaining and informative audio commentary tracks. The first with Jim Mickle, Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Larry Fessenden, and Brent Kunkle, and the second with Jim Mickle, Peter Phok, Adam Falk, Ryan Samul, Graham Reznick, and Jeff Grace.
`Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land' is next and as the title insinuates, it's an hour long Making-of that presents an overwhelming amount of behind-the-scenes footage, spiced up by interviews with the director, producer, and stars. It's a fantastic watch for fans of the film and for people interested in the filmmaking process.
Then there are the director's pre-production diaries where we get even more behind-the-scenes material, broken into sections of Pre-production, Storyboards, Visual FX, Post-production, the Toronto Film Festival premiere and Q&A. The entire thing clocks in at around 50 minutes and is well worth seeing.
Then there's a featurette entitled `WFX Breakdown' (3 minutes) which shows you the specifics pertaining to the digital effects. Lastly you get seven short films, or webisodes, that explore the backgrounds of several of the main characters and the film's theatrical trailer. This constitutes a fantastic package for a truly wonderful film.