After the largely overlooked box office bomb, Priest, 2011’s second helping of vampires, religion and Western tropes comes in the grimy package of Stake Land, an indie horror film that’s worlds away from Scott Stewart’s film.
Although there’s a substantial amount of thoughtfulness in this film and its world-building, it’s entirely irresistible to compare the film to 2009’s zom-edy, Zombieland. This is partly because of the narration, partly because of the characters, but mostly because the monsters are bloody zombies.
Let’s be generous and say that the film’s monsters are, at least, an unholy hybrid of vampires and zombies, nicknamed “vamps”, which have overtaken most of America’s population. Mister, played by Nick Damici, is a vampire hunter who lives a Spartan existence, trekking across the devastated States in constant vigilance.
At the very start of the film, he encounters Martin, played by Connor Paolo, as the boy’s parents are attacked and killed by vamps. He takes on the boy as his apprentice, and Martin isn’t the first survivor Mister will collect along the way.
Along with the ever-evolving vamps rampaging around, the scattered survivors face another threat from the zealotry of the Brotherhood, a Christian organisation who welcome the vamps as agents of the Rapture. It sure is difficult to survive in Stake Land.
Back to that Zombieland comparison then, from which three main problems spring. Firstly, the characters might bear a resemblance to Tallahassee and Columbus, but that’s not to say they’re as developed as Woody Harrelson’s and Jesse Eisenberg’s characters.
Just because those characters were funny, and that film was funny, doesn’t mean we didn’t care what happened. And although there are hints of interesting personal developments, as in Martin’s shy and private perusal of some scavenged porno playing cards, and Mister’s distinct discomfort at staying put for too long, the film never invited me to care too strongly about any of the characters.
Secondly, there’s the continuing narration by Martin. An integral part of Zombieland, and yet in Stake Land, it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder how much of it existed in the script before the film got to post-production. We’re told more than we’re shown, and the visual storytelling isn’t there as much as in, say, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters.
And thirdly, there’s the creatures themselves. Stake Land, for most of its running time, comes across as a zombie film that was accidentally produced by someone who doesn’t like zombies. To give credit where it’s due, director Jim Mickle at least keeps the creatures out of the daylight, and there’s certainly not a twinkle to be seen.
But a zombie by any other name is still a zombie, and the creature design in the film errs much more towards the dead than the undead. Ask anyone you know if they’ve seen the trailer for Stake Land and see if they don’t respond “Oh, yeah, the zombie one?”
The film’s qualities remain prominent, for those who can appreciate them. From a cursory glance at the film’s anti-religious leanings, some may be left scratching their head at why Christians would leap to believe that the vamps are agents of a loving Father. For a while, at least, the inference appears to be that, if you believe in God, you can be just as wrong about other things.
However, the characters in the Brotherhood are well drawn enough, their very particular loony-tude so firmly established that you can sort of go with it. The script, co-written by Mickle and Damici, quickly and ruthlessly sets them up as a threat, particularly with the presence of Michael Cerveris’ character, Jebedia.
The actual message is that hope, at least in this post-apocalyptic version of the world, has to be earned harder than through religious faith, which is venomously directed against the basic human survival instinct by the fundamentalist Brotherhood. If you can turn to the good book for hope in a crisis, only to find it’s being used to beat you around the head and face, where else can you turn?
The film is also very well shot, evoking the terse cinematography of Winter’s Bone as our heroes roam across a derelict America. For all of the earlier comparisons, it’s not like the absence of Bill Murray is the only thing that distinguished this from the laugh-a-minute romping of Zombieland. There’s a blacker-than-black moment of gallows humour involving Santa Claus, but that’s about it for comedy.
Stake Land doesn’t actually have anything to match the promise of some of the viral marketing. (Go to YouTube and search for “The Uprising Has Begun”, to see one of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen in a promotion for a movie.) And in addition to the other pitfalls mentioned, it also overreaches in its final movement by introducing yet another apparently critical character.
However, in context alongside other zompire/vambie/’vamp’ movies, it’s a solidly directed bit of creature horror, with an assured and innovative script that’s essentially here to subvert the boring misanthropy of most modern genre films.
It’s not shocking or chilling, but it is still quite interesting. If you’re a fan of horror films, hopefully, that will be enough to determine whether or not it’s your cup of tea.