Nov 13, 2013


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

 So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Jim Mickle
Dark Sky Films / Glass Eye Pix
United States

"Months passed in a blur of days and nights. We traveled east and west, but always north. Away from death. We avoided the cities. Mister said they were the worst, hit the hardest in the beginning. As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington fell, it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it. And hope was abandoned. We were on our own now."


No, don't run. Seriously. I know, I know – plagiarist Mormon authors and NBC have turned our vampires into dapper-dressed James Bond supervillains. These new vamps woo, smolder, sparkle, and play baseball. They go to their classes even though they're dead and are therefore (mostly) incapable of achieving the American dream. If you've got a brain in that there skull of yours, I don't have to tell you vampires were fucking scary once. They were ratlike skeletal albinos with ten-inch fingers. There are parts of the world that still believe in them – that still bury their dead beneath wrought-iron cages to prevent them from coming out of the ground for a midnight snack. Thankfully there are people out there who know this and make their fanged nemeses nasty, vicious, and hideous. These monsters don't imprint on babies – they suck the blood from them and toss them onto the ground before they're onto their next pulsing target.

Enter Stake Land, the second collaboration from film-making partners Nick Damici (actor/co-writer) and Jim Mickle (co-writer/director), following their second equally great and equally unheralded Mulberry Street. Theirs is a film that played the festival circuit for a year or so before being quietly released onto video in 2010. A cast of familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces works well alongside the assured, pensive, bloody, and melancholic direction. It is a pastiche of the post-apocalyptic wasteland made mainstream by the Mad Max trilogy, combined with sensibilities of the western's lone-rider. and lastly, the good, old fashioned vampire.

Martin (Connor Paolo, Mystic River), while his family packs to hit the road in hopes of avoiding this new strange outbreak plaguing the country (or world?), watches as all of them are suddenly and viciously attacked by vampires. His own number is nearly up before a stranger called only Mister (Nick Damici, World Trade Center) springs up out of nowhere and saves Martin's life. Now with no one to look out for him, Mister takes Martin out on the road with him, preparing him for a life of fending off not only vampires, but "The Brotherhood" – a group of nutty humans who believe that the vampires are God's way of bringing about end times, and therefore want the vamps to succeed. (You mean humans are worse than the monsters? Romero would be proud.) Along the way, Martin and Mister meet other lost souls looking to make sense of this new world they had no idea they were inheriting. Among them are Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), a nun attacked and possibly raped by the cannibals; Belle, (Danielle Harris, the Halloween series), a very pregnant bar maid who seems more lost than any of them; and Willie (Sean Nelson, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), a former Marine. These five homeless and nearly hopeless individuals come together to form the closest idea of a family that can be formed here in this new world called Stake Land and attempt to forge ahead and make it the alleged last safe zone in the country called New Eden.

Stake Land will feel very familiar if you have seen the 2009 film adaptation of The Road, but that's not to say Stake Land is unoriginal or disingenuous. No, tales of the apocalypse have been explored in every medium for as long as existence of the realization that our time here on earth is limited, and as such these tales are bound to share common themes and tropes. Stake Land presents you with dirty bands of people in ragged clothing foraging for food and consumables to help them on the road; two groups of people - the good and the bad, one trying to survive, and the other trying to make it so no one can; and most importantly, the underlying message that even the most hopeless should never give up hope. Though Stake Land shares this last bit with The Road strictly thematically, it also shares John Hillcoat's pretty and philosophical direction. Though Stake Land is an ugly story about living in an ugly world, director Jim Mickle never fails to make it picturesque. Sweeping shots of untouched naturescape and close-ups of wheat billowing in the breeze reinforces this idea that it's not the world which makes humanity ugly, but the human race – that we like to think we're merely an unfortunate byproduct of our environment, but that we're actually a product of our own deep-seated selfishness and evil. (More on that in a bit.)

Mickle and Co. have a assembled a hell of a cast here. Nick Damici's Mister is the true Clint Eastwood/Man-With-No-Name archetype (hence his "name" being Mister). His history is vague, almost non-existent; there is a darkness to him, but also a light when he thinks no one might be looking. I always like seeing the dark and brooding hero/heroine enjoy a private moment to surrender to human goodness and smile or laugh. Mister isn't a barrel of laughs, but there is a certain kindness to him somewhere underneath that filthy and silent hero. He's not optimistic about the future, but it's not in him to steal that optimism from anyone else.

Conor Paolo as Martin has the task of not only experiencing these strange events and reacting realistically to them, but because he is also the narrator, it's his job to catch up the audience on the past and present. It's not a personal diary so much as it is a relay of information. His thoughts are stripped of any kind of emotion, as that is saved strictly for the on-screen action.

Our supporting cast is wonderful. Kelly McGillis' career seems to be enjoying a second life, working with some pretty exciting names in the world of independent horror. Along with this, she has appeared in Ti West's excellent The Innkeepers, and appears in Mickle's upcoming remake of the Spanish film We Are What We Are. Her first appearance is as a frantic woman dressed in torn and bloody nun robes, fleeing from a group of maniacal men. After Mister saves her, she becomes mother to both him and Martin. Their relationship is enforced only by the audience's desire to see them all overcome the horrid shit going on around them and allow them to find each other, and for them to desire each other's love and comfort as much as we want them to obtain it. She's the glue that holds all this together and makes it possible.

With Danielle Harris' turn as the pregnant Belle, she holds her own against her counterparts, all with a prosthetic baby belly shoved inside her wardrobe. Her performance benefits from the fact that the horror community already loves her – we've been watching her run for her life since her debut as Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – although she would have been just as fine without it. She's endearing and lovable, and the quasi puppy dog crush Martin has on her makes us care about both of them just a little bit more. (And c'mon...who wouldn't fall in love with Danielle Harris?)

This recent movement – this living painting approach to film-making – may not be new in its execution, but it perhaps has never been as beautiful. By this I mean the aforementioned The Road, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or pretty much all of Terrence Malick's filmography, who is thankfully back in a big way. Lesser known filmmakers with lower budgets are starting to take notice. Between John Geddes' Exit Humanity, Gareth Edwards' Monsters, and now Stake Land, I'm delighted to see this approach taking root in the horror genre. Because horror, despite all the dripping and the wounds and the blood, can be gorgeous. Your characters are allowed to be pensive, and to wonder or philosophize. They're allowed to be more than just the end result of their nightmarish world. These filmmakers allow their cameras to settle on some piece of oft ignored iconography, complemented by either their off-screen narrators or musical score.

Speaking of music, it was wise to bring aboard composer Jeff Grace, who takes after his fearless leader and fashions his score around those created by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis for the two films earlier mentioned. The Road and Assassination had many scenes of introspection where the silent images onscreen did the only talking, and so the music had to be more than just background. Likewise, in Stake Land, the music knows when to heighten the vampire carnage, or when to be the driving force and propel the imagery of mountains and sky into your head and heart.

While Stake Land contains some pretty heavy sociopolitical themes, it seems to be even less happy with religion – or at least what we as people have let religion become. As one character commits suicide before a crucified scarecrow (calling it Father) begging for forgiveness, or one particular mutant vampire discloses that it prayed for salvation but instead became a monster, Stake Land isn't so much as condemning religion as it is as warning you to use it to complement your life – not let it rule who you are. Religion as a whole has been bastardized. Once originally looked upon to unite communities, it instead has made us perfect strangers – foolish for believing in a higher power, or heartless and doomed for not. We have our beliefs and our faith – some of us hold onto it, and so it remains intimate – but some of us believe our beliefs and faith are right and definitive, and those who do not share those same are damned, and will bring damnation to others.

Stake Land doesn't want to just give you a cheap thrill with monstrous vampire faces and shooting blood. An exaggerated future, yes, but the whole humans-unable-to-coexist-with-other-humans thing? That's not exactly something out of the realm of possibility. We can't elect government officials without slinging death threats and constructing racial epithets on our lawns. We can't drive by a lawn adorned with the nativity at Christmas time without making a wry comment or joking about stealing the Jesus. Comedians ridicule certain religions while TV pundits sweepingly label others as evil. We have become ugly. We haven't yet sprouted fangs, but we drain the life from each other all the time. Fox News goes for jugular, as does MSNBC. The only hope for salvation we have are ourselves. Therefore, there is no hope.

Have a nice day!

No comments:

Post a Comment