Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (2011) is a pretty good watch, with rousing action scenes where locals turned vampires tear up rural America, although this is hindered by some unneeded frills. The film is set in apocalyptic America (what has caused this is unexplained). Towns and cities are dysfunctional and many are deserted. Various groups jostle for position: an extremist Christian cult, disenfranchised ‘simple folk’ searching for a new frontier and a pack of blood-guzzling vampires, each aiming for supremacy.
The story follows the travels of vampire stalker Mister (Nick Damici, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center) and orphaned Martin (Connor Paolo, Gossip Girl), picked up by Mister as an apprentice/vampire killer pal (I hope named after George Romero’s awkward be-fanged teenager). They are trying to find the promised land, a mysterious place called New Eden.
Stake Land is part buddy movie, part road movie, part sci-fi, part social commentary, part Western. Watching the film is like flicking through cable channels: Mad Max follows Karate Kid follows The Champ, all with teeth. There is a lot going on and it’s impressive that the filmmakers manage to cover so much film territory. But it feels a bit like an attempt to cover their bases and have something for everyone: slowed-down glamorous sections where the leading actors look cool, set to a melancholic soundtrack, are next to gripping and noisy action scenes of blood lust and staking (the best part of the film for me), and sensitive bonding scenes between the characters as they travel through a stunning landscape. All this set to music that is so unnecessary it feels like being smothered with a pillow of emotional impact.
The subtext of the film seems to suggest that in a new era of sluggish economies and ecological disaster only the fittest will survive, and those commonly portrayed as a drain on resources and not ‘pulling their weight’ are cast out. Indeed, many sequences are reminiscent of media-fetishised disasters. Vampire-struck towns with deserted houses, shops and people scavenging for food reminded me of images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or images of terrorist attacks. The vampire format has been used before to flesh out a particular time’s anxieties (disease, addiction, etc), and here it’s a fear of terrorism. With Stake Land, we’re made more aware than ever of a ‘watch your back’ generation of Americans desperately in need of a bit of meditation and some Ritalin.
Some of these references to contemporary society work well. One of the film’s strengths is the way familiar American suburban tropes are adjusted to fit this apocalyptic vamp landscape. The scenes where these mythical beings are seen as roadkill for ‘Nam-styled Mister, or where an infected Santa Claus awaits his impending doom in a cul-de-sac, dripping with tar-like blood, are high points. On the other hand, the relationships between the characters are not allowed to fully develop, so that the audience can neither genuinely root for them, nor really despise them. Damici’s character has some great moments and his cool lines give the film some laughs, but part of the narrative draw is dropped too early. Four of the people that Mister and Martin befriend are promptly killed off, notably an old woman and a black man, and rather predictably, it’s the young white couple who survive long enough to try and reach the promised land in the end.