Though one would be tempted to lump STAKE LAND in with ZOMBIELAND, while the two films have similarities, the tone couldn’t be more different. While ZOMBIELAND expertly plays for laughs and gets a headshot most of the time, STAKE LAND plays things pretty stoic, which makes for a completely different film. Sure STAKE LAND has its own innocent Jesse Eisenberg teaming up with its own wizened monster killer Woody Harrelson, then running into its own version of Emma Stone, in this case a pregnant woman, and its own version of Abigail Breslin, ok, well in this case it’s a black ex-military guy and a nun…oh and instead of Bill Murray showing up, here we get the bald dude from FRINGE. Instead of laughs, STAKE LAND attempts to pull at the heartstrings and show a survivor’s side of a world overrun by vampires. STAKE LAND is an ambitious film that hits all the marks when it comes to your typical bloodsucker fest, only guilty of stumbling into melodrama and taking itself a bit too seriously occasionally.
Though main protagonist Connor Paolo’s rules aren’t illustrated across the screen, he does spend a lot of time narrating and going over rules of survival in the United States of Stakeland. Society has fallen. Most of the humans have been killed and turned into vampires. The survivors hole up at night and only walk the streets during the day. STAKE LAND is more like THE ROAD (another excellent survival pic) in that the humans are pretty dangerous themselves. What I liked most about STAKE LAND was the acknowledgment that in times of crisis, folks often lean towards religion for solace and how that reliance can easily pervert itself into zealotry given the right circumstances. STAKE LAND is full of religious iconography. Lead by FRINGE’s bald observer, Michael Cerveris, these bands of bible thumpers roam the countryside, crucifying non-believers and making sacrifices to the vampires. There’s an extremely effective sequence later in the film where the band of survivors make their way into a gated community in the middle of a festival only to have the festivities interrupted by religious freak helicopters dropping vampires into the crowd. This is a pretty horrifying sequence, one of many in STAKE LAND.
Where STAKE LAND falters is that occasionally it seems like one cool sequence after another loosely threaded by a plot. Sure these action/horror scenes are more often than not uber-cool in both originality and technique, but they occasionally fit a bit neatly into place and by the end of the film, you pretty much can call the sequence scene by scene as one character you know would die dies and so on. That said, I won’t reveal it here, but the film ends strongly in a manner that addresses everything that needs to be addressed without being overly preachy or sentimental. For that, director Jim Mickle deserves a lot of credit.
The performances here are all pretty good. Danielle Harris continues to prove that she’s much more than a scream queen and turns in a very raw performance as the pregnant folk singer who hitches a ride with our stars. It wasn’t until I saw the credits that I realized that the old nun was Kelly McGillis and even then I had to do a triple-double take and hit rewind to make sure. The two leads are convincing enough. Connor Paolo is ok as the innocent pupil learning how to survive in this new world order populated by bloodsuckers, though the range is the young actor is breached on occasion when things get emotionally heavy. Turning in a somewhat nicely gruff performance, writer/actor Nick Damici occasionally skates the edge of self parody by taking things a little too seriously and not really having the charisma to pull off all of that seriousness all of the time. Damici looks and acts like the unholy offspring of Liam Neeson and Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, which distracted me more than once when he crossed the screen.
The vamps themselves are the type of bloodsucker I’d love to see more of. Hissing monstrosities with nary a twinkle or angsty furrowed brow. They’re more like fast zombies with a taste for blood not brains than typical vamps; feral infectious rats in human form. The addition of berserker vamps who have evolved breastbones to protect them from stakes is a nice new touch.
Those wanting a toothy version of last year’s hit zomedy are going to be sorely disappointed, but if you’re looking for a ballsy horror film that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty (and bloody), STAKE LAND has got a lot of stuff real horror lovers have been screaming for.