The follow-up to Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic vampire tale Stake Land is disappointing but there is life still in this undead saga.
It’s nice to see Glass Eye Pix building up something like a franchise, with star-writer Nick Damici staying on from Jim Mickle’s Stake Land and the Body team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen stepping in as directors. The first film offered an alternative to the many, many zombie apocalypses by presenting a vampire apocalypse. It also added the I Am Legend fillip of showing the last remnants of North American humanity besieged by zombie-like nocturnal monsters and equally dangerous lunatic religious factions (‘the Brotherhood’), as hints of malign intelligence suggest that there might be more traditional, calculating vampires out there. In this follow-up, the theme is only slightly developed with the addition of a vampire villainess, the Mother (Kristina Hughes) – should she get together with the Father, from Octane? – who has a grudge against Mad Maxy veteran vamp-hunter Mister (Damici) for killing her child (she’s a rare vampire who can give birth) and putting out her eye with an arrow.
Though it takes a while for the plot to cohere, the storyline offers plenty of action. It begins with Martin (Connor Paolo), who headed for relative safety in Canada at the end of the first film, suffering as his family is slaughtered by the Mother and her ‘berserker’ troops as part of a scheme to get him to find the missing-in-action Mister so she can get revenge. Peggy (Bonnie Dennison), who figured in the hopeful ending last time round, reappears briefly, and there’s the fulfilment of a bit of throwaway dialogue from Stake Land whereby Canada is seen to be relatively vampire-free but troubled by cannibals, in an encounter with a folksy old couple who (as in a bit of The Road) turn out to have an unhospitable streak. Thereafter Martin comes across Walking Dead-like enclaves of bad survivors who enjoy throwing people into gladiatorial arenas, a feral mute called Lady (names are out of fashion in the stakelands, obviously), Klan-robed vampire-worshippers, good survivors bossed by grizzled character actors (A.C. Peterson, Steven Williams), ending in an inevitable last stand as subplots are trimmed and the monsters attack en masse. As the original suggests, this goes for a post-apocalyptic mythmaking feel – drawing on the Mad Max series but also any number of Westerns – as characters who are slowly turning into legends clash painfully.
It’s disappointing that this treads water insofar as the apocalypse goes – the Mother has some impressive nastinesses, including dragging a minion into her daytime palanquin to be ripped apart – but doesn’t speak or seem that much more fearsome than the average vamp. It’s also extremely murky – a key moment in the final attack comes when a human suicide bomber takes out the generators so the UV lights the survivors use to fend off vampires are shut off, but this means the whole climax (like much of the film) takes place in such darkness that it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on. GEP supremo Larry Fessenden has his inevitable cameo, presumably as a new character. I hope there are more Stakeland (or Stake Land) films since the world is interesting enough – and Damici and Paolo still have some mileage in their much-abused characters – to offer developments that this running-on-the-spot effort doesn’t quite deliver. Surely, one of the heroes should become a vampire and – as in I Am Legend – vampires should become more organised, articulate and ruthless… and there should be a Romeo and Juliet human-vampire relationship if growing vampire intelligence also means a growing vampire emotional range. To my mind, this premise, which has roots in Matheson but also informs Justin Cronin’s Passage novels, offers more potential than the increasingly soapy, gimmicky and self-cannibalising Walking Dead saga, so I’d hate to think it was all over here.