Sunday, 25 October 2015

October Nightmares #25: Stake Land (2010)


Zombie apocalypse films are as plentiful as middle-aged women posting "it's wine-o-clock" as their post-work Facebook statuses. What arguably began with George Romero's ...Of the Dead series - a revolutionary vision of a nightmarish world overridden with the dead - has quickly devolved into the community bike for every would be amateur director to practice busting his nut on. Now, I'm not saying that I don't like zombie movies, but I can't help but feel that the genre has become stagnant - like the water in Michael Barrymore's swimming pool. Go on, look that one up. If only there were a way to make zombie apocalypse less generic. Like, oh I don't know, replacing the zombies with vampires.

Stake Land (2010) does such a thing; bold-facedly taking the zombie apocalypse model, and replacing the word zombies for vampires. As well as substituting "has an all you can eat buffet on internal organs," with "nibbles on the neck a little". Stop me if this sounds familiar: a spate of savage attacks occurs with increasing frequency throughout the United States - possibly the world - bringing civilisation to its knees. After teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) witnesses the slaughter of his family at the hands of a vampire, he is rescued by grizzled survivor Mister (Nick Damici) - who adopts him as a sort of pet. The two journey across post-apocalyptic America searching for the supposed last remaining safe spot, ugh, 'New Eden'. I hate when writers think they're all clever by calling their fabled utopian settlements after Eden, even though logically Eden is only marginally better than Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Don't let the above plot summation dissuade you. The film may operate on stock characters and setting templates, but it is never hackneyed. There's the usual naive survivor whose sorry life is actually marginally improved by the apocalypse. Mister serves as the gruff and haunted survivalist, with the troubled back-story - but he doesn't want to talk about it, guys. During their journey, they meet the rank and file rape victims/canon fodder (Kelly McGillis and Sean Nelson, respectively), the love interest Belle (Danielle Harris), and crazy cultist/redneck Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris). And if you've seen one emerging post-civilisation settlement, you've seen them all. What is this, fucking Paint Your Wagon? While a mixture of the undead, Weird Western tropes and religion is hardly conducive to the originality in a post-apocalyptic horror film, Stake Land's saving grace is its self-awareness. Hence why the religious zealots are using helicopters to spread the vampire scourge, and still believe they are doing the Lord's work - it makes sense within the film's internal logic. Unfortunately I don't believe God had asymmetric vampiric warfare in mind when he invented Apache helicopters.

By this point, anyone who hasn't seen Stake Land is likely envisioning a bizarre hybrid between Mad Max and Interview with the Vampire. That is not the case, more's the pity - as hilarious as it would be for a Master Blaster type to run around shouting out "Claudia... You've been a very, very, naughty little girl". The vampires in Stake Land are part way between zombie and werewolf: feral, bestial creatures, with little to no intelligence that are dedicated purely to the cause of throat gouging. Religious nutbag Jebedia later willingly allows himself to be consumed and transforms into a vampire - which becomes the only thing remotely resembling the traditional vampire in the movie. That said, I'd rather have an endless barrage of featureless creatures than the douchey trust-fund type of vamp who wears scarves and dreamily sighs "this isn't a curse I'd wish on anybody" unironically - and thankfully Stake Land delivers on the former. The make-up work on the monsters is surprisingly good for a low-budget film - giving the creatures a distinctly sub-human appearance.
As a matter of fact, Stake Land on the whole captures the spartan, grimy, survivalist world efficaciously. Director Jim Mickle's ability to establish an engrossing and living world with little to work with, beyond the sparse sets, is nothing short of miraculous. Mickle could probably have filmed Prometheus on a tenner.

If anything lets Stake Land down it is the unrelenting grimness - not an unusual complaint about a post-apocalyptic horror film, but what makes this especially incongruous is how similar Stake Land is to Zombieland. That 2009 comedy-horror understood that while horror set pieces are all well and good, building character through interpersonal moments and humour. Aside from the occasional bleakly-humorous joke - the vampire Father Christmas sequence, or Martin finding those rather risqué cards - Stake Land, like my dad, just doesn't have a damn sense of humour. This is okay during the full blown horror sequences with jump scares and intense, and bloody, scenes of violence. But once the story focuses on its anti-religious messages, highlighting the actions of the Christian right antagonists - with all their raping, scripture manipulation, and brutality - I was in need of a decent bit of black humour. Alas, however, Stake Land is more depressing than news of an explosion at the Yorkshire Tea factory.