20 June 2011

At the Cinema: Stake Land

Stake Land (Jim Mickle/2010) USA/96mins. *****

It's good to see a healthy, horrific return to proper vampire moviemaking after the big-screen hogging by the weak-limbed runts-of-the-vampire-film-litter, the Twilight movies. The haggard, grotesque collection of inexplicably-undead wanderers dredged up by director/writer Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street) and writer/star Nick Damici for independent horror Stake Land come as a much-needed breath of rotten air for the genre. Mister (Damici) and his orphaned sidekick Martin (Connor Paolo) wind their way across an abandoned, hopeless America staking bloodsucking pests and helping fellow stragglers (Kelly McGillis as a nun, Sean Nelson as an ex-marine and Danielle Harris as a pregnant folk singer chief among them) along the way. Its causal concerns adds night-dweller peril to the current crop of apoco-happy plot excuses and it plays out its genre traits accordingly: it covers The Road’s (nuclear devastation) father-son dynamic and grim tone; turns far sourer the wilderness wanderings of Carriers' quartet (viral infection); and replaces Zombieland’s (zombie epidemic) funhouse frolics with its grab bag of vampiric gore. But is the fundamentalist Christian right (headed by a maniacally hammy Michael Cerveris), intent on reshaping the landscape the their own ends, a worse foe than the undead marauders?

It's a gloriously gory throwback, sure (there are nods to the mainstays Romero and Carpenter), but it's not completely a resonant addition. Some of it – not much, but enough to be noticeable – creaks and didn't always convince with its intentions. There are often exciting bursts of tense action – mostly involving the stalk-and-dispatch of the vampires via efficient use of handmade weaponry – but these are occasionally followed by flat, aimless scenes wherein the survivors' plight becomes stalled; there doesn’t seem to be much urgency to their exploits apart from stumbling upon ways to reach the promised utopia of the ‘New Eden’ settlement. There’s an unfortunate, dubious overall lack of attention regarding the inclusion of the women who populate this wasteland, too. It’s not a new issue, and it’s more of a niggling aside here, but there is a degree of ignorance in how Stake Land portrays its female characters. Most of the vampires killed off are, inexplicably, lone females; McGillis' near-raped nun who Mister and Martin stumble across is thoughtlessly left (albeit temporarily) to a similarly degrading fate after a spell, for no valid narrative purpose; a moment of homely respite in a deserted house sees heroic leader Mister rest up with a newspaper whilst the pregnant Harris does some sewing! (because darning is essential when humanity is on its knees.) The instances are relatively minor, but they worryingly accrue in frequency.

Mickle and Damici expertly evoke an all-encompassing despairing mood through crisp and often surprising framing choices of their forever-lost America. Transitional insert shots render crumbling warehouses and dilapidated machinery of the “old world” in realistic fashion, all with a genuinely creative flair for a ravishingly gritty composition. The meagre budget is utilised creatively, but fresh ideas cost nothing; what succeeds in the visuals isn’t always echoed in the script, which falls foul of derivation from the start and goes nowhere ultimately interesting. Whilst an undoubted part of the fun of seeing post-apocalyptic landscapes is discovering how characters might manoeuvre their way through them, there is something to be said for departing from the shop-worn norm. Cinematic apocalypses deserve a shake-up as much as any (sub-)genre. Why the constant focus on pregnancy to signify salvation? Why is it always ‘across the border’ (or sometimes to the ocean’s edge) that our survivors have to reach? Why can’t our lead character be, say, a grey-haired nun instead of a macho hard case?...

Damici speaks in little more than one-sentence grumbles throughout (“I fuckin’ hate vamps!”) and Paolo’s introspective voiceover mumblings remain idly informative but uninspired; together they share many, maybe too many, stake-training montages. But we’re given little cause to truly care about them, Mister especially. Damici should’ve written himself a juicer role (he’s not quite a Rowdy Piper or Danny Trejo type to carry his role off with minimal input) or handed lead duties over to McGillis, the only character present who's remotely interesting and who solely moved me in several brief well-played scenes. I wanted to see her nameless nun swapped with Damici’s blank tough guy; he had no personality to speak of. We’ve seen hundreds of lone warriors or moody braggarts dominate survivalist cinema in the past – why not have a middle-aged woman of the cloth lead the desperate gang through bloody ordeal to eventual redemption? Her own beliefs (the film takes every opportunity to posit its human vs. vamp vs. God argument) and generally decent yet somewhat inscrutable demeanor, balanced with, and played off of, the evil perpetrated by the Christian right would’ve made for a more resolutely intriguing narrative exploration than the overused man-with-a-vengeance-mission restated here. There was further potential in her character for the filmmakers to investigate a fresher perspective on familiar territory. But perhaps it's nitpicking to ponder the what-ifs or bemoan its handful of deficiencies too thoroughly, especially when the things that Stake Land does gets right are conveyed with plenty enough grim heft and gruesome thrill.

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