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Monday, May 16, 2011

Stake Land (2010) Horror Vampire

Stake Land (2010) - Opening on a country road in Pennsylvania the voice over from our lead character Martin (Connor Paolo) sets the tone immediately. "But lets begin at the beginning, I was like every other kid. I had a family. I went to school. I didn't believe in the bogeyman, but then the world woke up to a nightmare." Kicking off how Martin's family was killed by a vampire and just how he ended up in this car driving with this man only known as Mister (Nick Damici). The scene is well done and really relays everything we are going to need to be part of this world. Dad is frantically working on hi car, trying to get it running. On the radio reports of attacks by creatures are spreading across the country. People are being told to hunker down. Mom is holding the baby and fretting about whether running is the right decision. When Martin chases the dog out in the rain you think he will see a creature but instead the attack happens back in the barn. His Mother screams and his return inside is to see his bloody Mom on the ground. Mister shows up and with Martin kill the vampire that killed his Mom and then fed on the baby. His bloody gurgling father is finished off by the stranger. Traumatic for sure for Martin. He is just a teenager and if Mister had not shown up hunting this monstrous creature his incompetence would have been his downfall. We learn that you have to kill those who have been bitten or they change. Why else kill the father in the aftermath. That the vamps are animal in nature, the monster vampire instead of the romanticized version.
Now we know what we are in for in the world where a vampire plague has spread and people are few and far between. It is a solid start for a film that really is a road survival movie at its core. Martin journeys from the scared teen to capable vampire fighter trained by the experienced hunter as they travel looking for a place where they can settle down. This place New Eden is in Canada since the vampires, cold blooded do not like the weather. It is a goal and while Mister and Martin move towards it the film captures the need for connection among humans as well as the growing up that young Martin must do.
There are some more interesting ideas also, of course the expected militant groups of survivor running there self protected communities like military camps. Surprisingly though there are also more liberal places in the world where the people struggling to survive realize that protection can come without an iron fist if people work together. It is something rarely seen in these kind of films and was welcomed. Then there is the antagonist group, the Brethren. They are a group of fanatical religious zealots that believe the vampires are doing God's work driving new followers into the cult and when God's will is done they the vamps will be taken away by God leaving the Brethren to inherit the earth. Martin and Mister save a nun, Sister (Kelly McGillis) who has been raped by a couple of these thugs. Mister kills them running afoul of the group since one of the thugs was Brethren leader Jebedia Loven's (Michael Cerveris) son. This group is captures the writer's feelings about this group perfectly when in Martin's voice we get "In desperate times, false Gods abound. People put their faith in the loudest preacher and hope they are right." When captured by this group, Mister's punishment is to have his hands bound and left for a group of vampires. Sister and Martin are to be kept as new sheep in the flock. What is great about this film is that all along all the new decisions Martin has to make are training and he becomes more complete and likely to survive. I skip scenes in this review of Mister attacking vampires so Martin can practice killing them, at first not so well. When Mister is left to the vamps Martin runs from the group, now brave enough to make such a bold decision. He makes it back to the car to find Mister who also found a way to survive. Making it back to a safe town they pick up Belle (Danielle Harris), a young pregnant singer they see in the gathering place. She joins the group and it is something I like about this movie, people in it need connection to each other. It really is human nature and Mister is a vampire hunter but also a human looking out for those who need looking out for. Soon a fourth joins there party, Willie (Sean Nelson) an ex marine who is primarily there to fill some of the back story of how the government and military eventually broke down as the plague spread.
These four travel through Brethren country together, up the back roads to the colder mountains of New York State. Here Mister gets some sweet revenge on Jebedia when they come across him manning a checkpoint. Of course this can't be the end for the main bad guy we are only two thirds the way through the movie. Leaving him cut for the vamps though is a nice payback at the time. Finally reaching the border the group can relax. When they have to leave their weapons with the people running the town I knew that something really bad was going to happen. When Belle and Martin dance at the towns party, and Mister joined in I thought "Oh Oh this is not going to end well." Then when they see Sister and the group is complete I knew the bad was just around the corner.
The attack is awesome and I will not get into it here but it was surprising and really a cool thing to do. Our group gets out of it and heads for the hills going high to the cold country. When the car dies they are on foot, an older Sister, a pregnant Belle and the three guys. They seem safe from vampires but it is taking its toll on them. Even as they grow closer struggling together they are getting weaker and Belle is quite pregnant. Martin in the ever present V.O. says "Away from people I stopped thinking about the past and my family, I've found a new one." Since that was a bright and positive sentiment something bad has to happen. They come down from the hills because it is also too cold for them. They camp in this large traffic jam of abandoned cars that had been heading to the now really close Canadian border.
After another very good tense attack scene we have our survivors hold up in an old bus. Mister senses something amiss but can not put his finger on it. When another member of the group vanishes we get the big turn in the story. It is nicely done and although veteran horror film fans could figure it out I bet a fair number of people out there won't. Building to a climax as the last three remaining in the group get so close to safety only to have to fight yet another battle. When the final group of three are hold up at roadside diner, after the climax we see the journey's end for Martin as he is a proven survivor and vampire killer. The happy ending is well done and expected.
What I liked about this film is that it never lost track of whose story it was. At its heart it was always about Mister and Martin and it held true to the relationship. Although the voice over always in the voice of Martin showed that he was the main character from the beginning. Still the story of Mister played a very complementary role inter connecting with Martin but never drowning his story out. It was well done. I do wish though that more character development was done with interactive scenes instead of using the V.O. so much. Way too much we are told about the connections of characters instead of them showing us the connections they are developing. Some of the characters are less developed and thus obviously expendable. Overall this is a wonderful entry into the genre, instead of big loud and super action filled it is quiet scary, a study of people. A bit on the predictable in what must happen, with some characters obvious feed for vampires but also some surprises. The music was a real mood setter and I am not always sure it is the mood I wanted in the movie, some really melancholy tunes more appropriate for a dreamy summer road movie than a survival one. I think that they were going for a haunted mood but I wanted a bit more tension. The vampire presentation was just excellent and monstrous, the feel of the vampire attacks was closer to the 28 Days Later feel but less frantic, so positives there. Writer/Director Jim Mickle does a nice job with what he has and he with co-writer Damici have created a worthy film for lovers of horror that I think general audience could also enjoy.
Rating (6.7) 5.0 and up are recommended, in the Zombiegrrlz system Go and see it!

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