Taking a break from the award-bait movies and rom-coms to review something that's been in my collection for a while, but which, for some reason, I've held out on watching until now.
Stake Land (2010)
A few years ago, Stake Land was being hyped up by the horror fan community as a potential game-changer for vampire movies, pulling the genre away from Twilight-inspired melodrama and back towards making the creatures scary again. It was written by Jim Mickle (who also directed) and Nick Damici (who also plays the main character), the team responsible for Mulberry Street, a take on the zombie genre that could only have come from New Yorkers. While I haven't seen Mulberry Street, it apparently has a solid reputation that makes me want to seek it out, so that made me interested in seeing their follow-up as well, especially given the hype surrounding it. While I can't call it a "resurrection" for the vampire horror movie, it is still a solid, atmospheric post-apocalypse drama in the vein of The Road that's worth checking out.
For a low-budget horror film, Stake Land is gorgeous. Filmed in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York -- my backyard, pretty much, so it had better look convincing -- this film carries a "natural" tone that looks breathtaking on screen. Jim Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul do wonders at building atmosphere, pulling the viewer into the woods with the characters. This film is great at constructing its ravaged world of fortified towns and vicious doomsday cults, getting us to buy into it as easily as we do our own. While it has some moments of levity, the film overall possesses tension thick enough to cut; I could go into detail on several of the film's most nail-biting moments, but in the interest of time and spoilers, I'll refrain. The vampires here stalk their prey like wolves, hiding behind cars and in the woods waiting to strike en masse. Equally impressive are the main cast. Going in, I was only familiar with Kelly McGillis and veteran scream queen Danielle Harris, but all of them are solid actors who put on great performances here, from co-writer Nick Damici as the hard-as-nails vampire hunter known only as "Mister" to Michael Cerveris as the intimidating skinhead leader of the cultists. (Connor Paolo is on Gossip Girl, of all shows? And who would've guessed that Harris could sing?)
The solid acting, direction, and atmosphere are easily enough to make up for a script that at times meanders. Much of the first act is pretty thin on plot, and while it does eventually get moving with tense scenes that grab the viewer's attention, the film's slower moments struggle to keep it. The main cast suffers from a lack of characterization and development; the only ones who really grow as characters seem to be Mister and Martin, the adoptive father and son (for lack of a better term) at the center of the film. The fact that I was able to buy into them as individuals had more to do with the actors than the writing; some scenes where we get to know who these people are would've had me more invested in them and their fates. Lastly, while I appreciate what this film was trying to do in making vampires scary again and providing a unique take on vampire mythology, the film's depiction of feral, monstrous vamps came off less like vampires and a bit too close to plain old zombies for my liking. Stake Land is still quite good if you go in thinking of it as a zombie film, like I Am Legend meets The Road, but its bloodsuckers, while mean and scary in their own right, are pretty lacking as vampires.
Score: 4 out of 5
Thin on plot but heavy on atmosphere, Stake Land doesn't redefine the vampire movie, but it's still a worthy watch for anyone who's interested in vampires, zombies, or end-of-the-world movies in general. It's a testament to this film's strengths that they help it more than overcome flaws that would cripple a lesser film.