In some ways Jim Mickle’s Stake Land is reminiscent of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, not because they are particularly similar films (though they share a road-movie sensibility at times), but because it, like Edwards’ film, makes a mockery of many Hollywood blockbusters by delivering something compelling on a comparatively shoe-string budget.
Connor Paolo stars as Martin, a teenager who finds himself taken under the wing of ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici, who co-wrote with Mickle) when vampires attack his home and slaughter his family. After the fast-paced opening, Martin tags along with his unlikely saviour – a stern, tough hunter – and must quickly learn how to survive in a desolate, depopulated US. The country – and possibly the world, or at least parts of it – has been overrun by a swarm of vampires and turned into an apocalyptic wasteland. Amidst the wreckage, territory is divided between safe havens – overseen by ragtag military collectives – and areas under the control of the sinister Brethren, religious fanatics who believe the world is undergoing some sort of divine retribution.
If none of this sounds very original to you, that’s because it isn’t; indeed, Mickle uses every trick in the book, but what he’s put together is nonetheless an entertaining genre entry. Paolo and Damici, though they don’t talk much, make for convincing, charismatic company and sensibly the narrative turns into a coming-of-age story. As they gather more survivors to accompany them, Martin touchingly notes that, after losing his own family, he has stumbled across a new one.
The film’s narrative is bitty, broken into segments that flit between horror set pieces and serene travel sequences, played out to Jeff Grace’s melancholic piano-based score. It is credit to Mickle and the cast that the travelling sequences don’t become repetitive, although the jumps from day to night and from vampire-based set pieces to calm mornings do strain the patience a little at times. When action is required the film handles it well, capturing the staking and shooting with aplomb, though this isn’t an all-out fright fest; it’s more considered than that. There’s a fairly thick smothering of political commentary layered over the film, as well as plenty of religious symbolism, but these elements stubbornly refuse to become distractions.
Ultimately Stake Land is held back from being a great film by a number of small factors. The narrative drifts here and there, and while the action is well staged, the film doesn’t offer too many surprises. Supporting characters are generally well-played but aren’t really given that much to do – the survivors who join the party could easily be substituted for other similarly one-note characters. Meanwhile, the narrative goal of reaching ‘New Eden’ is a very familiar one in this type of film, and while it should be noted that the genre tends to be more about the journey than the goal, the ending does feel thin and a little unsatisfying.
But despite its issues Stake Land is a more-than-competent and often very entertaining vampire thril ler. It doesn’t stray far from the well-established path, but it does what it does well and, crucially, it does it better than countless films with vastly more significant budgets.