Its hard to make an original horror movie these days, let alone innovate and reinvigorate a popular monster (such as vampires). Especially when so many movies and TV shows have sucked the blood-suckers dry, forcing forward the same formula which seems to be part teenage angst and part over-sexualisation that has dominated popular culture in recent years.
Stake Land however, which is low on budget but big on ideas, manages to give the audiences another take on the fanged creatures of the night. It crafts an emotionally moving, post-apocalyptic road movie that meshes genres, whilst delivering enough action and frights to keep horror fans happy and all NEVER losing sight of the human focus of the film.
After an epidemic of vampirism plunges the entire world into chaos, the remaining survivors find themselves clinging to life struggling to find food while the vampires which exist all around prey on them for their nightly meals.
The United States has become anything but, with the people divided through necessity, the cities abandoned and the country falling back in time to the mentality and rule of violence in a world fast becoming more like the wild west each day.
After his family are slaughtered by vampires Martin (Connor Paolo) is saved by the hard as nails hunter Mister (Nick Damici), who takes the boy under his wing training him to become as deadly and determined as he is in ridding the world of the blood sucking scourge.
The duo becomes a strange family unit when they take in first a nun having a crisis of faith (Top Gun and Witness’s Kelly McGillis) an ex-army officer Willie (Sean Nelson) and a pregnant teenager named Belle (Danielle Harris from Hatchet and Halloween).
Travelling around by day and killing vampires by night, they move between the tiny rag-tag groups and communities that exist trying to find some sort of normality in a world gone mad. However, when they cross the land owned by The Brotherhood, a fundamentalist militia they discover that perhaps the vampires aren’t the most evil thing which exists on earth.
Produced by Larry Fessenden as only his third feature director Jim Mickle does an excellent job with Stake Land. Co-writing the script with star Nick Damici they create a dark and down beat story that rips open the raw heart of humanity by plunging the characters into a horrific world and turning reality into a warped nightmare.
Taking archetypal elements seen in many post-apocalyptic movies, such as recent examples The Book of Eli and The Road, Stake Land presents a world where monsters rule the earth a scenario traditionally found in zombie movies.
Keeping the characters and the audience constantly on edge from the bat eared threat that hides in the night works well with the plot never following exactly the path you think it will.
The animalistic vampires which are brutal and blood-thirsty yet without intelligence also serve as a reflection on the people they hunt, who constantly find themselves loosing their humanity and turning to their base instincts unless they remember what they have lost and are so desperate to regain.
Perhaps a little too depressing at times without the humour found in other social comment horrors such as Romero’s Dead trilogy, there is also an annoying climatic villain reveal which seems at odds in the intelligent film and more at home in an action horror.
These small quibbles aside Stake Land is excellent, with a brilliant cast (especially Damici and Paolo, whose voice-over guides us through the film). Well made and packed full of effective effects and gore, plus a great balance of exciting fight scenes and realistic dread, it’s all wrapped up in a poignant and powerful story.
Although Stake Land may be too dark and filled with political and religious comment for some, it’s still a fresh and entertaining steak in the heart of a genre which is in desperate need of new blood.