While “Zombieland” (2009) was a dark comedy that played like a comic book brought to the big screen, “Stake Land” (2010) is a straight, serious horror-thriller. In one post-apocalyptic world, America is overtaken by flesh-eating zombies; in the other, it’s bloodthirsty vampires. But you know what? The vampires in “Stake Land” look like zombies to me. Put it this way: Nobody here remotely resembles Edward from “Twilight.” Their faces are all in various states of decay. But if you can live with a different looking vampire threat, “Stake Land” is an above-average horror-thriller that gives us the same kind of engaging non-monster characters as we saw in “Zombieland.”
Like “Zombieland,” “Stake Land” is a road-trip survival movie with an expert monster killer (in this case, Nick Damici as “Mister”) and a protégé (Connor Paolo) he teams up with along the way. And as in “Zombieland,” they meet various characters that they become attached to, all the while trying to get to a destination they think will be free of zombies. I mean vampires. In a way, it’s like a Milton Bradley board game brought to cinema, and that thought struck me as Mister unfolded a map that he was re-mapping by writing which zones are “vamp” and which are “Brotherhood.” The latter—religious nut-jobs who think that the vamp plague was brought on by the nation’s sinfulness—is the one major addition to this film by Jim Mickle (“Mulberry Street”) that we didn’t see in “Zombieland.” Skin-head vigilante religious extremists. How extreme are they? Uh, they feed non-Brotherhood folks to the vampires, and they drop vampires from helicopters to spoil a town shindig.
The horror genre is rife with bad acting and mindless scripts, so it’s a nice surprise to get a decent screenplay from Nick Damici and Jim Mickle that gives the actors room to inhabit their characters before they have to fight the zombies. I mean vampires. It’s not just mindless action or horror, as the ending reinforces.
But if “Zombieland” hadn’t preceded it, I would have liked “Stake Land” even more than I did. The narrative structure was so familiar that any sense of freshness came from what the actors brought to the table, as well as from the screenwriters’ and director’s juggling of gruesome action with character-driven scenes. Damici goes Eastwood on the vampires, with his Mister a variation of the Western hero with a code, another man with no name. Connor Paolo (“Mystic River,” “World Trade Center”) is a nice foil to Damici’s chain-smoking, stake-sharpening vampire killer who moves from town to town and trades evidence of his kills as if they were scalps. As Martin, Paolo is both an eager apprentice and a still shell-shocked boy who’s had to grow up, with all the other children in this post-apocalyptic nightmare, way sooner than he would have if the zombies hadn’t taken over the planet. Newspapers are the only way we understand that this pandemic is as widespread as it is, but the film doesn’t suffer for it.
This slice-of-undead-life movie looks richer than its limited budget in large part because director Mickle creates a richly textured atmosphere that also relies on location Pennsylvania filming. Heck, this summer I even drove by one of the road signs that appears in the film, without knowing I was traversing vamp territory. Shooting with a digital camera also helped, as did the restricted use of a hand-held camera.
One of the best scenes involves a bunch of guys with guns blocking off the road into their town with a diesel locomotive–and backing the unit up so a car can pass once everyone’s been frisked and interrogated.
There’s plenty of gory vampire killing in “Stake Land,” but it doesn’t deteriorate into a desensitizing bloodfest. With an R rating already in hand, Mickle could have gotten out of handwith foul language, sex, and gore, but I appreciate that he didn’t. It’s more subtle that way, and it underscores the new “family” that comes together. We get that an older nun that the guys help (Kelly McGillis as Sister) was raped, then used by the leader of the Brotherhood (Michael Cerveris), whose bald, tattoed head suggests Skinheads as well as the Holy Roller leader. There’s no need to show it. And we get that Mister spends the night with a woman every chance he gets (“I didn’t think to ask her name”), while his protégé has to resort to looking at a deck of dirty cards he finds in one of the houses full of dead (and undead) that they take refuge in. It’s nice touches like these that make “Stake Land” a cut above the average horror-thriller. And still, there’s enough tension to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.
Actors who play minor characters that join this group–like ex-vet Willie (Sean Nelson) and the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris)–hold their own, but it’s really a two-person story, and Damici and Paolo are up to the task. They also make for a pretty mean vampire-fighting machine.
“Stake Land” is rated R for “strong bloody horror violence, language, and brief nudity” (a couple of guys’ bare butts). As you’d expect from a zombie/vampire movie, roughly 65 percent of it was shot in low light or darkness
According to Imdb.com, “Stake Land” was shot using a Red One Camera with 4K Redcode RAW source format and a Digital Intermediate master in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. It comes to a 50GB Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that shows no signs of ghosting or other issues. What’s more, despite the digital camerawork, the surface still has a pleasing texture and isn’t overly slick. Colors are natural, and when you see blood, by golly it looks like blood, not dyed syrup. You really notice the High Definition in scenes shot using natural light and in brightly lit interiors . . . and, of course, close-ups, of which there are plenty. Black levels are strong enough to keep details from slipping into the shadows. All in all, a very nice video presentation.
The audio is right there, too–a standard DTS-HD MA 5.1 that engages the rear effects speakers throughout most of the movie. It’s a fairly immersive soundtrack when all of the speakers get firing, and though there are quiet moments and dialogue-driven moments, you never, never know when all the speakers will kick in to scare the bejesus out of you. Jeff Grace’s melancholic score also adds to the atmosphere and keeps the active subwoofer on alert until the action scenes come up. There’s also a PCM 2.0 mix if you prefer, with subtitles in English SDH.
I’ve never been much of a commentary fan, but for those who like them there are two to chose from. The first features the two stars (Damici and Paolo), with the director and producers Larry Fessenden and Brent Kunkle. The second features the director again with producer Adam Folk, cinematographer Ryan Samul, composer Jeff Grace, and actor Graham Reznick. Both are worth a listen, though I have to say I would have preferred half-hour roundtables to full-length commentaries.
Would-be filmmakers will enjoy “Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land” because this hour-long HD feature throws a lot of raw, unedited behind-the-scenes footage at you in real time, especially during the first half. But for the average viewer it might seem about as exciting as watching film from the security camera at your local convenience store. Better are the “Video Diaries” that break things down into pre-production, storyboards, visual effects, post-production, and goings on at premieres like the Toronto Film Festival.
The concept seems new to me, but another bonus feature is a 35-minute “Character Prequels” collection of seven short films that are basically character profiles. It’s actually kind of interesting, but one would have hoped for more info on how these were used in the filmmaking process, if at all.
Finally, there’s a trailer in HD.
If you like horror-thrillers and you’re into vampires (I mean zombies), “Stake Land” has strong characters, a lucid script, plenty of action, and something more substantial to make it better-than-average.