Stake Land (2011)
After the minor success of their first collaboration, 2006’s Mulberry Street, writers Jim Mickle (who also directs) and Nick Damici (who co-stars) have aimed a little higher with their follow-up. Stake Land is bigger in every way than its predecessor: bigger cast, larger (but still small) budget, comparatively huge in scope, yet it still has that same sense of intimacy.
Equal parts The Road, coming-of-age story, and Western, Stake Land takes place in an America struggling in the aftermath of the collapse of society, brought on by a vampire plague. The cities are gone, the politicians are dead or in hiding, the military’s essentially disbanded, and the only refuge is in small towns that have managed to lock themselves down. Supposedly, there’s a safe haven to the north, called “New Eden”, but the trip there is long and potentially fatal, and the vampires aren’t the only danger on the road. A new fundamentalist cult called The Brotherhood has arisen, and it believes that the vampires are God’s latest plague, sent to cleanse Earth of the wicked and the non-believers. The Brotherhood is arguably more dangerous than the vampires: at least with the undead, you know they’re going to kill you. Led by Jebidia Loven (Michael Cerveris), the Brotherhood actively spreads the virus by crashing the roadblocks of safe towns so the vampires can get in, and they may have done even worse during the outbreak.
Our guide through this is Martin (Connor Paolo), whose normal teenage existence is shattered when his family is killed by a vampire one night. He gets saved by Mister (Damici), a grizzled survivor who teaches him how to kill the vamps as they head north. Along the way, they pick up some traveling companions: a nun (Kelly McGillis); Belle, a young pregnant woman (Danielle Harris); and Willie, a former Marine left to die by the Brotherhood.
While this description makes the movie sound a little derivative, it does come off much better on the screen than it sounds here. It’d be easy to dismiss it as just another vampire movie, but it has more depth than that. The central actors deliver quiet, understated performances, even Cerveris, who resists the temptation to ham it up as the villain. Special note should be made of its cinematography: filming in a variety of mixture of houses and abandoned factories, cinematographer Ryan Samul mixes natural beauty with ugly desolation, making the movie look far bigger than its budget suggests. One set piece in particular stands out: in a stunning one-take shot, a town’s reprieve from the vampires is shattered as we see the depths of the Brotherhood’s ruthlessness. It’s an incredible, complicated shot which would still amaze even in a movie with 10x the resources.
There is one other aspect of Stake Land that stands out: its scope. When it ended, I was pretty surprised that it had been a little over 90 minutes, because a lot happens in this movie. It’s not especially fast-paced, but it still covers a ton of ground in that time. If nothing else, you’ll come out of Stake Land impressed at how big it feels. In both of their films so far, Mickle and Damici have managed to create movies that show their influence, but still manage to find new ground. I’m already looking forward to seeing what they do in their next collaboration.