Studio: Dark Sky Films
Director: Jim Mickle
Writer: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Producer: Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Brent Kunkle, Adam Folk, Derek Curl
Stars: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Bonnie Dennison, Chance Kelly, Tim House, Larry Fessenden, Adam Scarimbolo
A teenager teams with a mysterious man to survive on the road in a North American wasteland overrun by vampires.
Martin just watched a monster maul his mother, father, and defenseless baby brother. If not for unexpected intervention from a mystery man known only as Mister, Martin might be mutilated meat alongside them.
There is no time for mourning. Savagery and survival are the way of things since a vampire apocalypse cloaked the continent, decimating society’s structure in the process. Governments have crumbled. In this new world order, outlaws fend for themselves, the meek struggle to settle new communities, and religious fanatics rise up in a brotherhood as fearsome by daylight as the creatures are at night.
Mister doesn’t need a teenage sidekick, but Martin does need a mentor. As an uneasy father figure, Mister takes the boy on the broken roads in search of supposed sanctuary up north named ‘New Eden.’ Navigating crazed cultists, cutthroat scavengers, and vicious vampires requires Martin to learn Mister’s ropes fast. With assistance from other ragtag nomads collected along the way, this unlikely duo might stand a chance at finally making their way out of figurative darkness and into literal light.
It’s unusual for a film featuring this much familiarity to feel simultaneously inspired by so much sincerity. Vampires haven’t been fresh in fiction since who knows when. Neither have zombie apocalypse backdrops. In fusing these two foundations together, “Stake Land” builds a stage where cinema standards like gruff drifter, kill or be killed conundrums, and idealism eclipsed by the reality of self-preservation find invigoration from a presentation powered by played-straight performances, as well as a starkly sober take on a traditional tale of tragic terror.
There’s a lot to breathe in as Martin and Mister traverse North America encountering a nun on the run, a pregnant bar singer, and a vindictive pagan priest. The movie makes sure you have enough time to absorb the full scope of its world while hooking into its people at a measured pace that rarely rushes and keeps lingering moments feeling lively.
“Stake Land” packs two TV seasons worth of storylines into its runtime and does so without becoming overstuffed. “The Walking Dead” would take 12-20 episodes to cover the ground “Stake Land” hikes in 95 minutes. “Stake Land” is as comparably bleak as its zombie television counterpart, yet its flirtation with nihilism doesn’t dare dip down enough to risk being uncomfortable as enjoyable escapism.
The movie’s depiction of a vampire wasteland owes a conceptual debt to Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” to be sure. But the realization of that idea through camera and characters is an original vision belonging uniquely to “Stake Land.”
The film isn’t cheap about details. Insert shots of charred corpses still smoldering with smoke wisps, car windshields rigged with fence frames, even random street signs with bullet holes pack personality everywhere. This is a living, breathing, frightening world that doesn’t overreach to be theatrically flashy at the expense of being relatable. Balancing what we need to see for the story with what we want to witness as voracious viewers isn’t easy for an indie production to achieve and “Stake Land” still succeeds.
Pieces of the plot are patently predictable, but pointed casting erases eye rolls through earnestness. Kelly McGillis plays a nun undergoing an expected crisis of faith. Yet when emotion cascades on her face as she confronts rape and captivity, her references to vampires no longer sound silly in the slightest.
Michael Cerveris may be the only actor who didn’t get the memo that “Stake Land” is more than a midnight monster movie. His sneering and snarling can stand to be turned down a touch, though that may be a nit being picked.
If “Zombieland” wasn’t a comedy, or “The Road” had slightly, only slightly, less somber drama, their similar setups would fall right in line with “Stake Land’s.” Co-writer/director Jim Mickle and co-writer/star Nick Damici treat their father/son road trip through Armageddon with the same seriousness as Cormac McCarthy’s story. While McCarthy’s is anchored in Pulitzer Prize-winning prose, Mickle and Damici’s is immersed in entertainment value worthy of awards as well, in addition to earning any audience’s attention as a forceful horror film.
Review Score: 90