Stake Land is one of those films that brings awareness to the independent world. In terms of plot, it's nothing groundbreaking. The US has fallen victim to a plague that turns humans into vampire/zombie hybrids. It's an action horror romp through a post-apocalyptic world. We've seen that countless times before. And yet, the low-budget Stake Land does it better than any overblown, CGI-laden, major studio picture in recent memory.
Stake Land nails the proper tone, by which I mean it's bleak as hell and you'll have to search hard for any sliver of hope. The film follows a vampire hunter known only as Mister as he trains the recently orphaned Martin in the ways of his craft. They travel the countryside in search of anything that will keep them alive just a little bit longer. Their ultimate goal is Canada, now known as New Eden, because rumor has it that the plague never got that far. Something tells me that isn't true.
Stake Land does just about everything right. It looks fantastic. Director Jim Mickle knows how to promote isolation and fear using nothing but vast, open countryside. The vampires are appropriately scary, an effect achieved with seemingly nothing but makeup. I'm well aware that I'm preaching to the choir, but reliance on CGI is bad for film. There were plenty of terrifying movie monsters before CGI was even around, so it stands to reason that it's not needed to make your baddie look scary. Some might argue that monster makeup can look cheesy, but if there's any of that present in these vamps, it's effectively hidden through a clever combination of quick movement and darkness.
The cast is populated by actors largely unknown, which always helps the viewer embrace the characters. The leading kid, Connor Paolo, has been in a handful of films and television shows, as has Nick Damici, the actor who portrays Mister. Danielle Harris, who plays Belle, screamed her lungs out for a couple of Halloween films when she was a child. In fact, the only person I recognized throughout the entire thing was Michael Cerveris, who plays Jebediah Loven, leader of The Brotherhood, a group of religious fanatics. Cerveris has been working on the television show Fringe, portraying an alien known only as The Observer. Hardly a major role.
I hate to knock a film for lack of innovation. I don't think it's a required component in the making of a good film and I think that Stake Land is proof of that. However, if there's one thing keeping Stake Land from being a truly great film, it's that it covers territory that has been treaded to death in recent years. And while I definitely respect the filmmaker for wanting to make his own mark on the genre (and subsequently putting big budget films to shame), if Stake Land had utilized some sort of unique twist, it would have made a much bigger splash. Right now, it's just an under appreciated, under-the-radar indie gem.
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