Written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici
Directed by Jim Mickle
A recent 60 Minutes report puts forth a startling figure: thanks to the high unemployment rate, soon 25% of all children in the United States will be living under the poverty line, many of them resorting to temporary shelter to survive. With the spectre of economic collapse – or at least sustained calamity – haunting anyone who pays enough attention to current events in this hemisphere, the post-apocalyptic narrative might well be an increasingly resonant one. That goes double for Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, a post-collapse vampire fable whose cultural landscape is eerily familiar.
Martin (Connor Paolo), not unlike the kids in the above story, grew up amidst newly emerged hard times. As his stoic narration tells it (and a flashback soon confirms), his parents were gruesomely murdered by the deformed vampires (commonly referred to as “vamps”) who sprang up in the wake of a calamitous cocktail of war, economic upheaval and political instability that rended the country, and he was rescued by a gruff loner he calls Mister (Nick Damici). Mister is an anomaly – he actively pursues and kills the bloodsuckers, where most are satisfied with holing up in some fragile pocket of existence to try to eke out the most tolerable living possible. As he trains the young man in the art of killing the creatures, they travel North to the fabled New Eden region (aka “Canada”) in hopes of a truly peaceful existence – but the creatures, along with a violent cult led by a religious nut (Michael Cerveris), have other plans.
Stake Land differs from other post-apocalyptic horror flicks in a few respects. It combines the archetypal relationships and precise societal degradation of works like The Road with broadly drawn characters (particular Mister, the remorseless-but-tender killing machine) and mythology more akin to something like Stephen King’s The Stand. The depiction of neighborhoods and towns where life flourishes – relatively speaking – is both refreshing and makes for some surprisingly lyrical moments (Martin’s trip to the still-intact barber shop stands out). Though things are dire, the film is not completely grim and humorless. The depictions of ordinary people still carrying out old rituals in the face of destruction is poignant – and realistic.
The script’s handling of the nastier corners of post-collapse society are considerably broader, and occasionally clumsy. Cerveris’s villain errs a little too far on the pulpy side, with his rape tent, scalp tattoo, elaborate traps, and logic-bending third-act reappearance. His cult of reverent creeps has an intriguing take on the vampire population – that they’re agents of God, having emerged to do His work – but their malevolence is a little one-note. (Their approach does, however, allow for a strong one-take sequence in which a peaceful community celebration is destroyed from above.) Similarly, though the victimization of women is often widespread in times of crisis, two of the film’s three significant female characters are effectively damsels in distress, which feels more than a little regressive.
Amidst the comic-book style exaggerated violence, though, there’s still enough small character beats and subtle touches that make Stake Land ring a little truer than most movies of its kind, particularly Martin’s calm, novelistic narration, and an open-ended conclusion that eschews the usual martyr’s-glory scenes for a character-based ending that validates the film’s palpable sense of hard-fought hope and progress in lost times.