Oh shit, is that a vampire? It fucking is, too.

Stake Land is a movie that shouldn’t work at all. By all rights, it should be absolutely stupid ass. Many upon many vampire movies of all kinds get released every year and in an especially prodigious deluge as vampires have stayed extremely popular in spite of all the character assassination they’ve had to endure since Twilight.

In an interesting, if obvious, twist… the vampires in Stake Land are some kind of plague victims and there seem to be a few different types. Most are little more than extra mobile zombies and, while there is no precedent for it in the universe of the movie, we do get to see at least one that retains some level of sentience. Of course, that one is set up earlier as a primary villain and is one of the cheesiest parts of a movie that definitely gets cheesy once or twice. In spite of that, this is basically The Road if less bleak, having more supernatural shit, and so on. It’s not as outright good as The Road but I think it’s amazing that they bothered to try and create a realistic, detailed world around something as overdone and silly as a vampire/zombie apocalypse. It’s even more amazing that they pulled it the fuck off.

The movie is about Martin (Connor Paolo) who narrates, sometimes poorly but blame the writing), his adventures as he travels in the company of the tough, vengeful, but paternal Mister (co-writer Jim Damici, who looks a bit like Mickey Rourke). Together, they go through a series of run-ins with townspeople who are struggling to get along, religious crazies who have infected the landscape as surely as vampires, and the creatures themselves who few have the courage to tangle with. Indeed, their fangs are a sort of currency or badge of merit that these two can draw on whenever they need vouching for.

In the movie, Canada is held up as a sort of haven that everyone calls New Eden. The idea is that the cold and the sparser population means less vampires.

Martin ends up in Mister’s company when his family is brutally (and I mean brutally… the first time we see a vampire it’s snacking on Martin’s baby sibling and this movie does not shy away from that kind of shit at all) attacked. As his dying father begs Mister to “save him”, something in that hard no-bullshit face goes a bit soft for just an instant. That one instant tells us a lot of what we need to know about Mister and the movie is full, absolutely full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it character work. From then on, Mister trains Martin to fight vampires and navigate the hard and dangerous world he’s inherited. In some places, life goes on not too differently than before and it is in those moments that we get even more of the quiet, understated character development that is this movie’s true strength.

As they travel North, the movie becomes very episodic and feels longer than it is. This is not a bad thing, though, as not only does it show confidence but it also gives us a taste of something we’ve rarely seen in this type of movie. I was constantly amazed by how detailed the towns, extras, and various sights were. How believable it all was. And just how many people they got to do post-apocalypse drag for this movie. It’s largely about the little things. The way they set traps, discuss vampire physiology, and the way the movie always finds times to shed some provocative, if not informative, light on the effect of this plague on the larger world.

Part of the point of this episodic nature is to establish a world Mister is much more suited for than Martin, who often preoccupies himself with picking up strays and trying to rebuild a surrogate family. Mister needs this too, though he doesn’t admit it, and is almost as quick as Martin to protect their friends. There’s Nun (an aging Kelly McGillis) who comes and goes, her story dovetailing with the constant presence of the Brotherhood cult, and Belle (Danielle Harris) a pregnant lounge singer who wants to have her baby in New Eden, and Willie (Sean Nelson) a marine they rescue from a sadistic Brotherhood trap. Surprisingly little dialogue occurs between these characters, and no real attention is paid to establishing big reasons for them to stay together. Instead, it’s a situation that is allowed to simply be, showing that the writers were confident that an audience does not need any hand-holding. We can see that what each has in common is that Mister and Martin have bailed them out, even as they forge constantly ahead. That willingness to help others sets them apart in a world like this, and so does their self-reliance and ability to handle the many dangers. As bad things happen and people die as a result of not only the inherent dangers but also the choices Martin and Mister make, it only solidifies what Mister is trying to do for Martin.

Mister, in particular, is a total fucking badass. They never go into how he learned to fight, but he is obviously some kind of martial artist. It seems cheesy at first but then he faces down six vampires while handcuffed and armed with a torch. Guy doesn’t fuck around.

With some of the more contrived or cheesy bits, the mileage of others watching this will probably vary. I didn’t expect much but by the end of the first half hour, I knew I was watching something special. The actors are great, accomplishing simple demands (simple is not bad here) and fitting into the impressively rendered landscape. You believe the world, like I said, and you believe these people in it. Connor Paolo is especially impressive (when not forced to narrate rubbish) since a character like his could easily, easily be an annoying asshole. Nick Damici also walks a truly fine line, having to keep his tough guy thing going without being too emotive or too over the top. Delicacy is key and is almost always maintained by Jim Mickle (director and co-writer) with his actors. In spite of the limited budget, this is also movie with real scope and the vision to realize it, but it relies completely on the actors and their characters.

I should also mention the score, which is just this side of repetitive, but has an oddly whimsical tone that reminded me of the main theme used for Brick and equally the refrain from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When necessary, it goes big and haunting for the scary bits or the action but mostly it retains a poetry that shades the images, those small character moments I keep talking about. It’s unintrusive, mind you, but practically a character in the film.

Martin slowly becomes a badass. By the end of the film, he is ready to take on this world.

A good example of why I was so impressed with Stake Land is the scene immediately preceding the quote I used for this review. During one of the happier moments in the film, and there are more than you’d think but they are always short and muted, the Brotherhood show up in helicopters and start dropping vampires on the impromptu dance this particular set of townsfolk is having. We’ve already heard that the bastards use tactics like this, but the movie goes beyond its budget to effectively administer this. The helicopters are just disorienting lights and noises and the vampires are too quickly turning the whole thing into a chaotic mess for much attention to be paid to them anyway. It’s a very, very impressive use of limitations to create atmosphere and impressions, which is one of the things you always hope directors and DOPs can do with limitations. It’s much better to say “look what they did anyway” than “well, it’s like this because they didn’t have much money”. It’s kinda like Moon, which almost certainly cost a lot more, in this sense of a budget well spent.

I think I said above that it’s the little things. Stake Land won’t set the world on fire. It’s not reinventing the wheel. But it gets all of the little things right which means the big things have a lot of foundation to take a few hits over the flaws. Most people like a good vampire movie, or a good zombie movie, or a good post-apocalypse movie. This is all of those and a little Western thrown in, too. But it isn’t just paying lip service to genre tropes or using a veneer of this or that to coat wafer-thin storytelling and characters. This isn’t a movie-as-logline or a movie coasting on one cool concept. Stake Land pays attention to detail and will reward viewers who appreciate that sort of thing, even in a vampire movie.

Is even a harsh world worthwhile if you’re alongside the right people?

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