The first thing one notices about Stake Land, starting on the first day of shooting, is the drastic change in the story's environment compared to director Jim Mickle's first feature film, the zombie movie Mulberry Street. In that feature debut, the viewer was treated to claustrophobic city environments where violence erupted in cramped quarters, creating great intensity. There was no escape, because the attacks were contained within the unyielding cement and steel of a city. The end-of-the world vampire tale Stake Land is more like a western - full of wide open spaces where humans no longer dare to dwell. Claustrophobic environments have been traded in for a haunting bucolic backdrop. Yet, these fields and forests contain ravenous vampire beings. So, there is still no escape.
The first half of the Stake Land shoot took place in and around Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Locations included abandoned stretches of road (littered with overturned cars, debris, and corpses), a derelict gas station, a cornfield under a full moon, a massive abandoned military tank factory, and an old stone farm house hidden deep in the hilly woods. Working their way through this spooky series of locations were leading actors Connor Paolo (Mystic River, Alexander, TV's Gossip Girl), Nick Damici (In The Cut, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center), Kelly McGillis (Witness, Top Gun), and Danielle Harris (a handful of 'Halloweens', Fear Clinic). Actor Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle co-wrote the script together.
Stake Land is part road movie and part vampire film. But that isn't the core of Mickle's film. Instead, the emotional backbone of Stake Land is the relationship between "Mister" (Damici) and "Martin" (Paolo). Mister is a tough-as-nails survivor in a world now-populated by ferocious vamps who want to sink their fangs into his flesh. Mister is not only capable of defending himself, he thrives on the thrill of it, turning the act of slaying vamps into a gore-splattered art. Martin, on the other hand, is young, green, and vulnerable in this hostile new world. Mister takes Martin under his wing, protects him on the road, and slowly hones Martin's skills of self defense against the relentless vampires.
As a horror film fan on the set of Stake Land, what intrigued me the most was that the director and the producers seemed to be making a film that functions on many levels. Though low budget, this ain't no b-movie schlock. Yes, there is action, violence, and lots of the splashy red stuff to please the gore hounds in the audience. However, there is also great attention being paid to character development, there is a hefty dose of social commentary, and the cinematography and locations give Stake Land a wonderfully sinister atmosphere.
Stake Land is produced by indie film veteran Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix, in partnership with MPI. Fessenden still seemed like a kid in a candy store on the set of Stake Land, despite his many years in the filmmaking trenches. He was running around with a camcorder to document this latest Glass Eye adventure, and speaking with great enthusiasm about the project. "I appreciate films that make you think, and that actually have something to say, in addition to entertaining you," Fessenden told me on set. "That's what's so impressive about Nick and Jim's script." Also a seasoned actor, Fessenden plays a small part in the movie too.
Talking to director Jim Mickle during a rare moment of down time, he stated that the primary focus of Stake Land is "the relationship that develops between Mister and Martin as they travel together on the road." Mickle also added that he is not a big fan of remakes or sequels, which he knows are the "safe bet" for investors and distributors these days. So he considers himself "lucky and happy to be making this original work, and not being forced, for business reasons, to direct a sequel or a remake." He also confessed his thrill in having Danielle Harris in the film. "I've had a crush on her since I was twelve," said Mickle. "I guess she's probably my first film actor crush."
Actor Nick Damici is the anchor of the movie's cast, as the actions of his character tend to dictate what happens to everyone else. Damici is in just about every scene of the movie, so the long grueling shooting days are perhaps more punishing to him than to the rest of the cast. However, the word "tough" definitely describes Damici - which is a bit surprising, as he also happens to be a very humble, likable, and polite man. For one very intense scene of this movie, Damici's character was to be bound up in rope and dangled from a tree limb for the entire sequence. After many meetings and tests, trying to figure out how to fake this realistically, Damici finally offered to simply endure it for real. So, the night of the shoot, Nick Damici was tied up and hanging from a tree limb off and on - mostly on - for over two hours. Between (the rather long) takes, a table was quickly slid beneath his feet to relieve the pressure of the ropes digging into his skin and squeezing the air from his lungs. The filmmakers were moving fast, so untying Damici between camera set-ups was not practical. Damici remained in his painful binds until the sequence was completed. I did not once hear him complain.
As the first days of shooting turned into weeks, more and more vampires and bloodshed seemed to be entering the picture. The vampires of Stake Land are not the "classic" caped Lugosi-style bloodsuckers, nor are they trendy, sexy youth who happen to have two extra-long pearly whites. The vamps in this flick are grotesque, animalistic, and fast moving, caked in filth and the dried blood of previous kills. They are hunters, constantly prowling the night seeking their next victim.
Special effects are an important element in this production, as you may expect. Effects artists Brian Spears and Pete Gerner had the situation well under control, providing great vampire makeups, lots of spraying blood, and many a gore-soaked dead body. Stake Land has a rather large number of special effects for a movie that has only employed two effects artists - but Spears and Gerner routinely became heroes of the day by delivering the gore in spectacular fashion. This is the fourth Glass Eye Pix project to utilize the talents of Spears and Gerner. According to Spears, he'd be happy to do more. "They keep their promises and operate with integrity," revealed Spears, describing his employers at Glass Eye Pix. "They really are great to work with."
On the mornings of big special effects shooting days - and there were many of them - I would arrive to see an entire front yard littered with mangled corpses and various severed body parts. While Stake Land is definitely a smart, character-driven movie, the filmmakers have not forgotten what makes a horror movie fun.
Be on the lookout for ferocious vamps lurking in the shadows, and for Stake Land to be released in 2010.