Vampires are one of the great literary and cinematic creations. Nevertheless they have had a bad time of it recently, from their creative origins in Bram Stoker and Nosferatu to melodramatic teen icons of Twilight. Things are getting so bad that in recent film, Stake Land, vampires are turning into zombies. To call this a vampire film would be an outrageous lie. Stake Land bares all the tropes of a zombie film, their world is apocalyptic and the party we follow are on their way to the beacon hope and safety that is New Eden. That may be as traditional as zombie film comes. The film makers have openly admitted that this was influenced by Zombieland, personally I would go further than that and say that this is close to remake territory.
The main problem I had with this film is that it is labelled a vampire film, don’t worry, I’m not going to descend into one of those rants about what defines a monster (see the classic example of 28 days later). Instead, this is a film that doesn’t really know what it is, whether it is a zombie or vampire film. This is all down to the monster design, vampires may be blood sucking leeches, but they regain their mind and spirit to varying degrees, these vampires are mindless creatures whose only thought is food. Additionally their design varies from those who look human to the more common vampire who shares their appearance with zombies, 100 per cent.
Stake Land may have lacked creativity in the monster stakes but it more than makes up for it as independent horror film. I make no bones about the fact that I think that modern horror is broken, but with films like this, Insidious and 2010’s Buried among a very select few more are making a case for modern American made horror to be worthy of your time. This is achieved through the strength of the vision from director, Jim Mickle. It’s down to the vision to save this horror picture as it would be folly of me to say that this is a scary film thanks to the deployment of cheap scare tactics. The vampire apocalypse means the world is populated by small settlements abandoned and destroyed houses and vampires burnt to a crisp from the sun’s rays. Both visually and in the films design, this is a western with vampires; this makes Stake Land a unique proposition.
It’s not just the films design where the film carves out its own identity in the genre; it is also a very harsh film especially when children are concerned. Usually in horror films children are the witnesses and not the victims. Yet in stake land there are two set pieces which come to mind when talking about this, the more shocking example shows a few frames where we see a vampire sucking blood from a baby.
The mood and execution of the film would be enough to say that this is a great film. Unfortunately the story telling does its best to hinder anything good. The first and most immediate problem I had was the narration. The film is narrated in a mumbled and incoherent way. The narration either comments on that which we are watching on-screen as it is happening or we already know about it. Narration as a story telling tool is intended draw attention to a level beyond the visual, this does not.
As a rule when characterisation is an issue it means that it was included but not to a point where you could understand or like a character enough to care about their plight. Stake Land may full of good performances from Danielle Harris (Belle), Kelly McGillis (Sister), Connor Paolo (Martin), Sean Nelson (Willie) and Nick Damici (Mister), yet this is all in lieu of well-rounded characterisation. There are many occasions throughout when the sparse and desolate countryside becomes the lead character; these moments of respite should have been better used to pad out the characters beyond the basic truths. All we know are the essentials, Martin lost his parents, Belle is pregnant, Willie is an ex-army guy and sister was a nun. We know even less about Mister, just that he has that moniker and a reputation to boot. Consequently when they are killed slowly by vampire kind or the clichéd religious extremists of the brotherhood I just didn’t care who lived or died. That isn’t mean spirited statement, it’s just when you know nothing about a character how are you supposed to care what happens to them?
Stake Land may very well be visually and conceptually interesting, but when the film is so badly written and the characters are so poorly constructed it left me bored to the point where I was on the brink of falling to sleep. Now if that isn’t a disappointment I don’t know what is.