Immediately upon finishing up with Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, I tweeted something nerdy like “It’s The Road meets The Dark Tower meets Blade meets I Am Legend. Kinda.” But now I’m here to elaborate on those thoughts, because A) that’s what I do, and B) Stake Land is a very solid little indie flick that doles out vampiric horror and the post-apocalyptic bleakness that only a true genre fan will appreciate. It’s a derivative film in many respects, but like its Fantastic Fest brethren High Lane and Primal, Stake Land does a fine job of ultimately standing on its own two feet.
We open after the world has died. It’s a harrowing post-apocalyptic landscape, and it’s there that our two “heroes,” the tough and grizzled Mister (Nick Damici) and the wide-eyed, horrified Martin (Connor Paolo) must locate small deposits of safety. It seems that the planet has been overrun by a virus that turns people into zombie-like vampires (or perhaps they are vampire-like zombies) and while it’s relatively safe to travel during the day, our pair of travelers must contend with all sorts of horrible threats once the sun goes down.
If you’re focused only on the surface stuff, Stake Land is a perfectly satisfying horror flick mixed with a low-key- neo-western. The old gunslinger and the kid feel like a duo yanked right out of an old John Ford western, and the quieter moments between the two men, particularly as the wise old warrior teaches his charge the importance of staying alive, are unexpectedly effective. Outside of that simple framework, however, Stake Land becomes even more interesting.
Mickle and co-screenwriter Damici work rather hard to posit a basic but very compelling idea: that even in a world full of zombie-style vampire creatures, rampant disease, and a noted lack of personal hygiene -- the biggest threat on the horizon is still plain old man, and infinitely moreso if those men have hitched their desperate wagons to a reilgious perspective. In other words, the post-apocalyptic religion nuts are infinitely more dangerous than the monsters are; at least with the monsters a survivor knows where he stands. It takes a clear-minded human being to deceive, manipulate, and abuse another man.
So while Stake Land certainly works as a scrappy little horror flick / road movie, it’s at its most compelling when Mickle and Damici are focused on their socio-political targets. The chases, chomps, and escapes are perfectly suspenseful and sly, but this film works best when it’s dabbling in shades of grey. (Plus the flick boasts intangible merits that don’t need a lot of cash: smarts, enthusiasm, and cleverness behind the camera, for example.)
Stake Land follows Mickle’s debut feature, Mulberry Street, by creating a stark and effectively bleak landscape for its low-key characters to wander around in. Neither film is a shock-a-minute gore-fest, but they’re quite moody and adequately unsettling. If nothing else, Mickle knows how to make an inexpensive film look like a relatively high-end one. Fortunately Stake Land is a big step up from Mulberry Street in many ways ... which means I’m certainly looking forward to Jim Mickle’s third film.