At one point in fabulously envisioned Stake Land, the loner-hero takes a brief snatch of down time from kicking up road dust and vampire killing to relax on an outdoor recliner chaise. It is the moment that you realize that the film has far more in common with a classic American Western than the current craze of Vampire movies. But this is only one of the revelatory delights that the film is stacked with chock-a-block to the point where you sit back and smile that genre films can be made so well. In a year where John Carpenter has a new film that is as unsatisfying and generic as oatmeal, it is nice to see that others have taken up the mantle to resurrect the no-nonsense, bad-ass, Snake Plissken type (here named simply “Mister”) and drop him into an interesting and wide open space – a post-Apocalyptic america that has returned to its frontier roots in the wake of a Vampire epidemic. But these are not your Bram Stoker, Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer Vampires. A stake through the heart will finish them off, assuredly, but there isn’t much going on upstairs beyond the extreme feeding instinct. They are sort of a hybrid of rage-zombies and rabid (foaming) nocturnal pack-animals, not far off the were-rat creatures featured in the director-writer-star combo’s (Jim Mickle and Nick Damici) first film Mulberry Street. Certainly, this peculiar (and quite gross) brand of vampire is something something you do not want to be caught surrounded with on a moon-less prairie night after being robbed and dumped by religious fanatics with a vindictive sense of road-justice. This is, more or less, taken in stride by Mister – one more speed-bump on the road out of a sadly compromised and brutally over-stretched America that has seen the final monster sized Katrina-disaster which has pushed it back to the 19th century.
Now there will be the inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and John Hillcoat’s The Road which admittedly is a tad more on the dramatic side, a bit more in the upscale Oscar-zone or the confusion that this is a spiritual sequel to the goof-ball undead-road picture Zombieland, but ignore these statements. Mickle and company have made a film that strides the line between delicious genre WTF (at one point vampires are dropped from the sky via helicopters – don’t ask) and straight out character driven moments as Mister starts protecting a a rag-tag collection of travelling survivors – anyone familiar with Mulberry Street will recognized that is what made their first outing so special, it may have been a zombie-rat picture, but the community in the New York tenement building, and the mourning of the decline of this kind communal aspect of New York living gave that film some emotional heft. Stake Land further mines the good old fashioned frontier ethic of “we carry each other on this journey” yet ominously considers the a sharpened wooden stick as a mode of defence and rape. The sophomore pairing is such a quantum leap forward from their first collaboration that if they can make this sort of film-to-film improvement again, we will be looking at a classic along the lines Days of Heaven or Dawn of The Dead. The only narrative stumble in Stake Land is the resolution of the new-Christianity religious fanatics and their over-the-top zealous leader. It is as if there was not the confidence to make a film without a straight-up villain, the kind that can show up where-ever he is needed along the road, instead of the more nebulous threat of hordes of indifferent disease-ridden cannibals and complete the sum of the perils on the road. But this is certainly forgivable considering the film is firing on all cylinders at the technical level – wonderful cinematography, some bravura long-take shots, excellent use of voice-over and a score that is one of the best I have heard for a post-apocalyptic road movie (and this sub-genre is getting to be a crowded field these days) in quite some time. Looking for something familiar-yet-very-different that stretches what the genre is capable of rather than pandering to its base elements? Stake Land alternates between scrappy and stately in its bid to put Mickle and Damici on the map as goto-to men when you want badass leavened with heart.