The oldest staple of the horror movie, from F W Murnau’s Nosferatu through the many other adaptations of Dracula and The Hunger, The Lost Boys, Immortal Blood, and Interview with the Vampire – what more needs to be said? When the latest vampire movies are the polar opposites of a remake of a Swedish arthouse movie or the fourth Twilight adaptation, is there room for a different style of vampire movie to shake things up? GeekChocolate certainly thinks so…
Horror has changed across the last century of cinema, but while evolution can be seen as a process of adaptation to external factors, it is the unexpected mutations that offer the most surprising outcomes. While codes of morality and strict censorship governed the early Universal and Hammer output, from the seventies onward, the shocking and subversive independent creations of Romero, Carpenter and Cronenberg led to unexpected mainstream recognition and commercial success.
Unfortunately, that success led to a bowing to studio demands. For those whose sole concern is profit, the best way to ensure returns on investment is to play it safe, an ethic contrary to the horror genre. First came the horror comedy hybrid, then a decade of remade Asian originals starring American teens with perfect hair and teeth even in their death scenes, before horror-lite was created for the pre-teen market, vampires who twinkled as they scowled at overly buff werewolves. No longer pushing the boundaries of fear, horror instead became another studio commodity, safe, homogenous, bland.
So once again, it has come to the independents to step forward and deliver the goods, and that is exactly what Stake Land does. It is sparse and simple, a tale of the open road and the grand beauty of desolate wilderness, of being on the run from an evil that has become so ubiquitous, it is almost a force of nature.
Directed by Jim Mickle, and co written by him and star Nick Damici, there is nothing ground breaking or remarkable in Stake Land, but what it does is tell the story well. The horror is not played safe; in the opening moments, teenager Martin witnesses the slaughter of his whole family, sees his mother lying dead, torn open, hears the baby screaming, before the silence is broken only by sound of the tiny broken body hitting the barn floor.
This is not a film about winning the prize or getting the girl; it is about surviving. Anything more than that, any moment of comfort or joy beyond still breathing come the dawn, is a bonus. They never speak of plans beyond the immediate, never hope for a future. On the road, Damici’s vamp hunter Mister and Martin pick up Belle, but while in another world this might be a romantic interest, here she becomes closer than that, part of their family. None speak of what they have lost, and other than Martin, we never learn more than the briefest background of any of the characters. The stories do not matter so much as what the world has become and how they must deal with it.
Similarly, no validation is given for the outbreak of vampirism; explanations are superfluous. More pressing is the need to know where the next safe haven is, where they can find food, shelter, gasoline. Mister knows how to kill a vamp – the older ones, the berserkers, have hardened breastbones, so a stake won’t work; severing the spine at the base of the skull, destroying the reptile brain that controls them, is the only sure method. He will teach Martin about weapons and fighting, but there is no montage with a killer soundtrack to ease the process.
That is not to say that there are not moments of happiness, a few ironic laughs along the way, but they are so few, they are all the more precious; sword practice in a sundrenched field, the haunting, lonely beauty of the backroads of America, a sunrise through the branches of a leafless tree, mist rising off the river. Heading north is a way to stay safe; cold blooded, the vamps cannot function where the temperature drops.
Religious cults are never good, and in an apocalypse, they are only going to get worse. The Brotherhood, led by Jebedia Loven, played by Michael Cerveris, Fringe’s Observer, have claimed the end of the world as their own, seizing much of the territory of the Southern states, torturing and executing those who will not bow to their gospel, unleashing captured vamps on the strongholds that resist them to flush out those who would stand against them. At least the vampires have devolved to animals, their actions instinctual, whereas the Brotherhood are fully cognisant in their actions.
Yet not all religion is hatred. Also rescued is the nun known only as Sister, a resolute, determined and kind woman who stays with the band as they make their way towards the haven of Canada. Kelly McGillis says so much with no words; her gestures and expressions, her kinship with those who have taken her in, even to those who have fallen, say far more than the preaching of the Brotherhood.
For much of the film, less is more, and this is reflected in the performances, and in Jeff Grace’s soundtrack of sparse piano and guitar with occasional discordances, assisted by reworking of old blues and spiritual numbers, echoing Jeff Beal’s Carnivàle, but later introducing the pulsing synth reminiscent of John Carpenter.
The film is not perfect; a reappearance by Jebedia towards the end of the film is contrived, and his final defeat too easy, and although it was likely in production before that book was published, it mirrors the style of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and it will be interesting to see how that translates to the screen under the guidance of Let Me In’s Matt Reeves. But for now, Stake Land is just the thing to show that there is life in the undead yet.