In Films, S by Emily Moulder

In a celluloid landscape consisting of superheroes and sparkly bloodsuckers, you probably thought you had just made it

In a celluloid landscape consisting of superheroes and sparkly bloodsuckers, you probably thought you had just made it out of Spring’s cinematic dumping ground when along came another bloody vampire film, Stake Land. But after watching it, you may find yourself eating your prejudicial words because Stake Land is measured, beautiful and balanced with lashings of blood and vicious vampire action.

In the aftermath of a vampire outbreak, orphaned teenager Martin (Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo) traverses a now inhospitable American landscape made up of abandoned cities, ghost towns, empty highways and small communities of people banding together, trying to survive, with his companion and protector, Mister (Nick Damici). A Christian cult however, have other ideas about what it means to survive in the face of what they see as a Biblical event – a vampire apocalypse. The radical wing-nut Brotherhood, led by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerevis), use humans as bait to lure vampires into traps and kidnap women to keep as sex slaves. After rescuing one of these women from Loven’s rapist son, Mister and Martin incur the Brotherhood’s wrath, making a dangerous enemy.

The woman (Kelly McGillis) turns out to be a nun who joins Mister and Martin as they head for a supposed safe haven, New Eden. Along the way, they wind up picking up ex-marine Willie and pregnant Belle with the idea that safety in numbers will protect them against the unforgiving wilderness and bloodthirsty vampires.

The world building aspect of Stake Land is impressive; the ruins of contemporary America Martin and Mister navigate are empty, sad and beautiful, like a bizarre photography exhibit from the future. The vampires in Stake Land are reminiscent of those in Blade 2; feral but adhering to classic vamp rules like stakes and sunlight but also incorporating zombie characteristics in the early stages of transformation. These vampires are terrifying but they’re not the focus of the story. The main message of the film is about the awful things that people can do to each other, particularly in the name of religion or survival, and these are the story elements that are the most engaging.

The film, written by Damici and director Jim Mickle, feels closer to The Road than Twilight, steering clear of clichéd characters and instead focusing on moving these characters forward through the story. Actual character development falls by the wayside due to minimal dialogue but the filmmakers let actions speak louder than words, so there are no heartfelt monologues to wade through. We aren’t given everyone’s individual backstories and don’t need them; the focus is on where these people are now and the pacing and tone of the film fit like a glove.

Aside from Michael Cerevis, who chews the scenery a little too much as the maniacal Loven, the actors fit together perfectly as an ensemble, McGillis standing out a little further perhaps. Her portrayal of a nun, utterly betrayed by so-called Christians, is the heart of the film and her mother-son relationship with Martin is really very touching. Damici, as the mysterious Mister, is the ultimate bad-ass, perfect as the gruff but reliable leader.

Jim Mickle has produced an interesting, fresh film that manages to breathe new life into vampires, giving them back their fangs and showing us that we don’t have to go to Hell when Hell can come to us.