I love my post-apocalyptic horror, or more properly – I like movies in which the world hasn’t ended. Not quite. It’s recognisable, but it’s warped, it’s dangerous, and human relationships are tested in fantastical, but still understandable circumstances. Pockets of civillisation remain, even though all the common markers of control and safety have been obliterated. This is the scenario we come to – and which is handled deftly and thoughtfully – in Stake Land (2010).
We start with teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) about to flee from…something, with his family: mother, father and a baby. Before they can get in the car and drive away though, they’re attacked by something ferocious and lightning-fast. Martin rushes back into the garage where he left them in time to see his parents in their death throes, and his baby sibling being drained of its blood by a grotesque, verminous vampire which is about as far from the stylish aristocrats of so much horror cinema as it’s possible to get.
Just as it looks like Martin will also die, he’s joined by a man which he, and we, only ever know as ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici). Mister dispatches the creature and offers Martin his only choice – to go with him. It soon transpires that not only is Mister capable of killing the vampires, but he actively seeks to do it. Together, they head North across a heavily-demarcated North America in which the religious nutjobs are as lethal as the bloodsuckers, seeking a place called New Eden – which is, they hope, free of both.
The country they travel through has been decimated by a plague of vampires who are disfigured, mean and animalistic. In fact, in this film what we usually understand to be zombies seem to have merged with vampires to create a sub-division of mankind. At least the vampires still have to confine themselves to the night, though: the religious Brotherhood who control vast swathes of the land can rape, murder and enslave whenever they see fit. Along the way, the cold-as-ice Mister and his young companion rescue other drifters also trying to make their way to New Eden; a nun (played by the long-missed Kelly McGillis), a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris) and an ex-Marine, Willie (Sean Nelson).
Stake Land feels a lot like an apocalypse road movie, and I won’t be the first reviewer to mention its similarity to The Road (2009): the close bond between two male characters, an elder and a younger; the desperate journey in search of possibly mythical ‘safety’; gorgeous, bleak, hopeless landscapes reflecting what’s left of humanity, and the relentlessness of threat, even when things seem relatively languid. Stake Land is also a very brave piece of film in that it dares to dispatch the vulnerable, like children, and refuses to give us moral absolutes. Our ‘heroes’ make mistakes, or fail to help people. We’re reminded of the past humanity of the vampires too, such as when the Sister recognises one of the other nuns in a vampire state and insists she’s treated with as much dignity as possible. There are no clear answers here, just people trying to survive.
It would also be easy to assume that the presence of a dangerous god cult in the film means that Stake Land is a simplistic attack on religion, but it’s much richer than that. The Brotherhood are maniacs, but the Sister derives strength and peace from her version of (ostensibly the same) faith. Christianity can be a convenient banner to gather beneath, like a horde, or it seems it can allow people the strength to be self-sacrificing, even accepting of horrendous circumstances. Even characters who never give a hint of being religious will treasure religious icons they find along the way; conversely, the supposedly religious will trash or ignore them. What the film says is that in times of great trauma, people will cling to old markers which provided them with meaning – for good or ill. Some use these markers as a stick with which to beat others, and some use them as a crutch. The intensification of this split under the extreme conditions of the film’s setting makes for an interesting subtext – though by no means the only one.
The horror here is intense because it frequently bursts out of something rather calm. The process of travelling, finding safe shelter, avoiding the dark, meeting other, friendly communities – these will suddenly give way to fear and panic, and because you might have settled into the day-to-day details, they can come as a shock. Stake Land boasts one such attack scene which is frankly brilliant, and not like anything I’ve seen done before.
All of this is meticulously framed and shot; there is something extra to notice in every scene, and the film looks stunning – much more than you’d expect for the budget. The performances are excellent. Damici in particular communicates an inner life which his character never explains aloud, and both his and Paolo’s characters noticeably develop – taking on elements of each other’s, with Martin’s voiceover actually working very well as part of the film.
An ambigious ending only adds to the quality of this stunning film for me. Stake Land might not have invented a new genre, but what it does, even with recognisable plot lines, is impressive indeed. This was my film of the festival at May 2011′s Dead by Dawn and I expect it to be one of my films of the year.