Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stake Land (2010)

It's the end of the world as we know it. Vampires (of the rude, animalistic sort that has a lot in common with the fast zombies of the last decade) have overrun the world. Governments seem to have stopped existing, and most of the new plague's survivors are huddling together in locked down communities.

The vampires are not the only threat to the survivors in this rough new world, though. An apocalyptic, racist cult calling themselves the Brotherhood sees the vampires as their god's way of "cleansing the impure". Its members spend their days helping the godhood out by raping, pillaging and attacking the locked down zones, when in doubt even by throwing vampires into them out of an helicopter.

There's also some hope. Canada has supposedly - rumour having replaced fact quite some time ago - become New Eden, a giant, vampire-free evacuation zone.

Stake Land follows the teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and the hard-ass, damaged vampire hunter Mister (Nick Damici, also co-writer), who has taken Martin in after the death of his parents, on their way north through the United States trying to reach New Eden.

Travelling, the pair meets and kills a lot of vampires (Mister doesn't just kill the creatures in self-defence, but goes out of his way to destroy them, in reaction to some trauma in his past the film will only ever hint at), runs into trouble with the Brotherhood, witnesses the best and the worst of human behaviour, and picks up other survivors like a nun (Kelly McGillis) and the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris). Martin will have a lot of growing up to do before - and if - he and Mister are going to reach their goal, and not everyone will survive the journey.

If you're like me, you'll probably remember Jim Mickle's microbudget "rat zombies in Brooklyn" movie Mulberry Street with fondness. Stake Land (again, like Mulberry Street, co-written by Nick Damici) turns out to be even better than the earlier movie, in part because the film's budget this time around isn't quite as micro, but only low (thanks to Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix whose only price seems to be a mandatory cameo by Fessenden), which enables Mickle and Damici to give their film a more ambitious scope. "Ambitious" is of course a relative word: don't expect the film to be a tour through the post-apocalyptic tourist attractions of the USA. Mister and Martin make their way through the back roads and side streets of rural and small town USA, but really, after the hundredth film showing the deserted streets of a major metropolis, taking a look at other parts of the post-apocalyptic landscape can only be a good thing.

In Stake Land's case, it's even an especially good thing, for Mickle really has a fantastic talent for finding a sense of loss as well as a very sad kind of poetry in pictures of dilapidated buildings and beautifully photographed landscape devoid of humanity. In an interesting development for contemporary filmmaking, Mickle seems to belong to the small group of directors who actually know how to put the unending fad for colour-desaturated photography to good use: turns out a thoughtful director can use the hated blue tinge in scenes where it is useful to set the mood, and not use it where more natural colours are more appropriate, using the technology for the good of his film instead to demonstrate that he hates all colours.

Stake Land's ability to find beauty as well as terror in the landscape of the world it takes place in reminded me of Monsters, which is about as big a compliment as I can make a movie. Both films also share an emphasis on showing the relationship between their characters and the worlds they have to live in, a clear love for political commentary that (for the most part) is beyond preaching, and their disinterest in the supposed narrative need for tight plotting.

The big difference between the two films is that, where Monsters doesn't go for "action" at all, Stake Land alternates its calm moments with scenes of the old ultra-violence. These scenes are - quite in contrast to the composed down-to-earthness of the film's other half - more on the pulp action movie side of the equation, instead of coming from the "dirty realism" school I would have expected. Surprisingly enough, the action never hurts or overwhelms the film's more thoughtful side and does in fact strengthen it through the power of contrast. It certainly helps that Mickle realizes his action scenes with the same expertise he has for long, sad looks at what's left of humanity.

The only time the film's action side loses me is in what I'll just call the boss fight so as to not spoil too much for anyone. It's just way too pat, the sort of thing that probably looks good on paper because it closes certain circles in the script, but feels a bit trite and artificial in a film that's otherwise as organic as Stake Land is.

For most of the time, this is a film with a script that doesn't go in the easiest directions. Much of the characterization is based on the importance of small gestures and trusts the actors to make them, and the audience to understand them. Most of your typical mainstream movies - for example - would give us a major flashback into Mister's past somewhere around the film's last thirty minutes, probably with some shouting of "noooo!" and a tearful breakdown. Stake Land trusts us to understand without the melodrama. The only other exception to this rule is Martin's occasional voiceover monologue. It's not really necessary, does tell us things we see happening on screen, and gets a bit purple now and again, but it's used sparingly enough not to be anything that could ruin the film.

And really, if what I think are the movie's two bad decisions are a five minute scene and some voiceover work, than there's nothing at all wrong with it.


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